The Nemean Games
|Nemea||37 48 24.38N|
22 42 52.43E
|The Nemean stadium lies to the east of the modern town of Nemea, close to the archaeological site of ancient Nemea.|
Despite the recent scandals in the governing council, the Olympic Games, to be held in Sydney later this year (2000), are regarded as the pinnacle of world sport. Held every four years, they attract the top sportsmen in a wide range of physical sports (an attempt earlier this year to have video games made an Olympic sport was rejected out of hand!) who compete for a gold medal and international recognition as the best in the world.
The games are a revival of the ancient Olympic Games, held once every four years at Olympia in Greece, when athletes from all over Greece competed for the prize of a laurel wreath. Like their modern counterparts, however, victory meant more than a quickly fading circlet of dry leaves: winners were feted by their home towns and commonly given the equivalent of a life-long pension as well as a statue by some well-known artist.
Some may, however, wonder why the games were only held once in four years? Some modern athletes have complained about this, finding that their peak of fitness and performance has fallen in between the quadrennial games, thus depriving them of their hope for victory and fame. No doubt ancient athletes also felt the same way.
The answer is that nation-wide games were held every year in a cycle that included games at Olympia, Isthmia (not far from Corinth on the narrow strip of land that connected the Peloponessus to the mainland), Delphi and Nemea. The prizes varied: at Olympia the prize was a laurel wreath but at Nemea the victor was crowned with a wreath of wild celery! The real reward, however, was the kudos that resulted from winning in a national contest and the financial rewards offered by the winner's city.
Despite the hopes of those who refounded the Olympic Games and lots of talk about the "Olympic ideal", the modern Olympic Games are a highly commercial affair. The first departure from the Olympic ideal was when participation was opened to professional sportsmen and women rather being restricted to amateurs. In a way, this was compelled by honesty, as the definition of what constituted "professional" had been twisted out of all recognition. Nonetheless, the result was the modern games where illegal drug-taking is rife among the athletes, bribery for committee members is blatant and competition is fierce and often unsportsman-like.
In reaction to this hot-house atmosphere, a committee was formed a few years ago to try and recover the "Olympic ideal" of competition for fun and fellowship. On June 1, 1996, the first Nemean Games were celebrated in the ancient stadium of Nemea. Over 6,000 people, from nearly thirty different countries, arrived at the ancient site in festive mood. Those who had come as spectators laid out picnics on the grass that covered the remains of the stands while the participants, who ranged in age from twelve to over eighty, retired to changing rooms where they removed their shoes and put on simple tunics.
Barefoot, the five hundred prospective athletes walked down the tunnel that their predecessors had used more than two thousand years ago and emerged into the bright sunlight of the stadium. The original start line was marked by a line of stone and the athletes took their places and waited for the rope to be dropped in the ancient manner. Contestants were separated by age and sex, but the most significant thing was that they all took part for fun. No records of times were kept and no prizes were given apart from a ribbon around the head and a palm branch. At the end of the day there was a formal awards ceremony and wreaths of wild celery were distributed to the winners.
The next Nemean Games will be held June 3 and 4, 2000. So far as we have been able to find out, there are no preliminary heats or qualifying times. Anyone who wants to participate needs only turn up on the day - and may the best man (or woman) win! For further information about the Nemean Games, visit Wikipedia.