“I think I’m supposed to run naked through Greece!” Since I never win raffles I’d barely listened to the prizes offered at the posh British Guild of Travel Writers dinner at the Savoy, even though I’d bought quite a few tickets since you never know. I won a trip to the Peloponnese to take part in – if I wanted – the Modern Nemean Games. It was generously donated by Sunvil. And, indeed, I hadn’t misheard about the naked bit. The detailed rules stated: “The ancient Greeks ran, and competed generally, in the nude – a practice that we do not insist upon.”
So where is Nemea and what are these games? It’s all down to one man, Stephen Miller, the Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of California in Berkeley. In the early 1970s, Miller instigated a dig at the ancient site of Nemea, having been intrigued by aerial photos. First he had to buy the land, but the current land owner was happy to sell: “Nothing grows there”. Nemea was already famous for its Temple of Zeus and classical connection with the labours of Heracles (Hercules), one of which was to kill the Nemean lion. Linked to the Games is also the myth of Opheltes, the baby son of King Lycurgus, who the Oracle had decreed should never touch the ground until he could walk. But one day his nurse, Hypsipyle, was stopped by seven generals on their way to Thebes who asked for water. In her haste to show them the spring she put the baby down on a patch of wild celery in which a serpent was hidden. When she returned, the baby was dead. The athletic events, one of four of which Olympia is the best known, were supposedly created in memory of Opheltes, and some officials in the modern games wear the black of mourning. A wreath of wild celery is worn by the victors in the races which take place, like the Olympics, every four years.
On the last day of his dig in 1974, Miller unearthed evidence of the ancient stadium. This led to further funding and the thrilling discovery of the tunnel leading to the stadium. Participants of the Modern Nemean Games pass through this tunnel to reach the starting line, just as their predecessors did two thousand years ago. Their graffiti can still be seen on the walls. One is the name Telestas, who won a boxing event in 340BC and the other simply states “Niko” – “I win”. From the archaeological point of view the tunnel is particularly important since it proves that the Greeks beat the Romans in the use of keystones when building an arch.
Stephen Miller was responsible for the revival of the Nemean Games in 1996 and is still involved. It was he, wearing a yellow robe, who shooed me away when I entered the runners’ area too soon. I should have been flogged for this misdemeanor – the rules state that: “He [the judge] will be holding a switch from the ligaria tree with which he will flog anyone who commits a foul or does not obey his orders.” I escaped the flogging but everything else is done, as closely as possible, in the spirit of the original games. Participants run barefoot, dressed in Greek togas or chitons. And it’s only 90 metres. These days ability is not important, and women can take part. Participants are nicely divided into groups according to age and gender, so I was encouraged to read that I was in a group for “Women whose age is 75 years”. The programme had a looser interpretation – my friend Roz and I were in the oldest group, ranging from 83 to 71. When it came to it, there were a number of no-shows, so we were amalgamated with some of the next (younger) group.
Once our names were called we went into the tent to change into our chitons and, if we wanted to be extra authentic, smear our bodies with olive oil. To create the chitons someone had been very busy with old sheets and a sewing machine. A rope belt allowed us to hitch it up to the required length. Then another roll call, and it was time to take the oath, promising to uphold the spirit of the games and do nothing that would bring shame on our families. I’d memorised the Greek for “I swear” which sounded something like “Gorgonzola” but I’d obviously got the stress wrong. So I just murmured something and raised my clenched fist with everyone else. “Now go forth into the stadium and be worthy of victory” said the judge (in Greek). So, as our name was called, and the trumpet sounded, we walked or ran into the arena to satisfying applause from the spectators. We picked a marble tablet with the number of our running lane on. Mine was zeta – Z. Worrying since we’d been warned that there was some rough ground in this lane.
The starting line is two parallel grooves in stone. It’s the original starting line and I speculated about all those fine masculine toes that had hooked into the grooves, as I looked down at my crooked ones. At least I’d cut my toenails. Then it was “poda para poda”, “ettime” and “apite” and we were off. I ran as fast as I could but I’m no sprinter, better at the slogging runs, so watched most of the runners’ backviews as they hurtled towards the winning line. Still, Roz and I didn’t disgrace ourselves. In our group of 12, I probably came about 7th with Roz a couple of places behind. And anyway, it wasn’t fair, the winner was a mere stripling of 68 (though at least she was British). She got a victor’s ribbon and a palm frond. Roz and I got a sense of achievement and anticlimax. That’s it? We’ll just have to come back in four years’ time.
5 thoughts on “The Nemean Games, 2016”
Oh yes, the winery was great! We visited it for a tasting as part of the Nemean Games package from Sunvil. Just before the opening ceremony so I’m surprised I didn’t fall off the ancient stone I was standing on. Wish I’d bought a bottle of that delicious red.
Zimmer frames it is in 2020…
I am glad you liked the wines.
We brought back 6 bottles (about all we could carry).
I got to meet Thannasis (the owner) in 1996 and again in 2012. His son was there when we stopped by on Friday.
There is a restaurant out by use in the Chicago, IL, USA, run by a Greek American) that used to serve Papaioannou. Of course I had to tell all the servers as well as the managers about knowing the owner of that winery! They refer to me as the “Papaioannou guy” lol
Wearing your shirt during your race should get you some questions from other runners.
When I used to run 5K’s and 10K’s BMH (Before My Hip lol), I was always asked about it. It not only gave me a chance to re-live the memory, but also get another person enthused about running in the Nemead.
How far is your race next weekend?
I know you will do great!
That’s great, Keith! I’ve hardly taken my T-shirt off since arriving home. I’ll be wearing it at the Parkrun (Killerton, Devon) next Saturday, and hoping that maybe I’ll spot another one. And my friend and I have promised ourselves we’ll be back in 2020, even if we have to use a zimmer frame (an authentic Greek one, of course).
Thanks for your quick reply!
I ran with a bad hip (needs to be replaced) so I may be joining you with a Zimmer frame for 2020! Lol
BTW….Don’t know if you drink wine, but the best Greek wines come from the Nemea area. in fact, there is a wonderful small winery less than half a KM from the museum and stadium.
The name of the winery is Papaioannou. His grapes are the ones that are planted all around the museum grounds and stadium.
If you like great wines you can visit, sample and buy some after your heat in 2020.
I sent Dr. Stephen Miller and the Society a thank you note for all of the effort they put in to another great Nemead. Since they are all volunteers, I know they will appreciate it.
Hillary… Thank you for the article on running at the 6th Nemead. I am so glad you and your friend had a great time.
I have run at every Nemead except the very first one in 1996.
I come back every 4 years to compete as well as to see Stephen Miller
I hope to see you at the next Nemead in 2020!