Monday, May 14, 2012

Ancient Nemea and the 2012 Games


Stadium
Ancient Nemea

2012 is an Olympic year and like many people around the world, I’ll be tuning in to view the games in London. I’m not an avid television sports viewer but when it comes to the Olympics, every event is interesting to me. One of the reasons I find the games so compelling is that it is a time when people from all over the world are coming together, in peace, to compete, to achieve the ultimate in feats of physical and mental prowess.

The other reason I love the games is, of course, for the history. When I watch the summer Olympics, I am coming into touch with history itself, watching people make history but also re-enact it. The games no longer involve pankration, the hoplite race or the chariot race, but you can still see boxing and wrestling, the marathon, the javelin, various footraces, the discuss, long jump, equestrian events and other sports that began long ago in 776 B.C. with the first Olympiad.

But, what many people might not know is that the Olympics were not the only sacred games in ancient Greece. There were also the Pythian Games at Delphi that honoured Apollo, the Isthmian Games at Isthmia (near Corinth) in honour of Poseidon, and the Nemean Games at ancient Nemea (between Argos and Corinth) which, as the Olympics did, honoured Zeus.

Temple of Zeus, Nemea
People may also not know that the Nemean games are still being held every four years, since 1996 that is, by The Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games. Back in 2004 I was able to visit the archaeological site of ancient Nemea and was totally blown away by the beauty and preservation of the place, from the Temple of Zeus and the inordinately long altar where athletes made their offerings, to the well-preserved change rooms and barrel-vaulted tunnel leading into the ancient stadium itself. If you are ever able to visit this archaeological site, it is a real delight.

The revived Nemean games are aimed at educating people about the ancient games, about enjoying and participating in ancient traditions. Two footraces of these modern games are open to runners from age 10 to age 80, men and women, and in 2008 the modern Nemean Games saw some six hundred participants clad in white tunics. The stadium itself is in great shape with remnants of the starting line and mechanism for a sort of starting ‘gate’ called a hysplex. There is also a channel running around the stadium that (fed by a spring 500 meters away) held water so that participants and spectators could stay hydrated in this very hot place.

Herakles and the Nemean Lion
Like the other Peloponnesian sanctuaries such as Olympia, Nemea is one of those special places where history and legend meet and, for this writer, come to life. While walking through the site, careful not to surprise any large snakes, I could not help hearing the cheering of the crowd or, going farther back, the sound of battle between Herakles and the Nemean lion. This was the spot where the hero is said to have defeated the lion and taken the pelt that he would be known for in all his representations. If you are a wine lover, try some of the Nemean varietals, sometimes named "the Blood of Herakles" for the blood the hero shed in his battle and which seeped into the soil of Nemea. If you get there and want to take something with you, stop at one of the many roadside stands in Nemean wine country around the archaeological site and pick up a few bottles of red agiorgitiko. You won't be disappointed.

Nemea Wine Country
If you would like to read more about Nemea or the revived Nemean Games, visit the new website at: http://nemeangames.org/ Who knows, some day, we may meet at the starting line and if not, there is likely a good taverna down the way.

Cheers and may winged Victory crown the winners at the Olympic and Nemean Games in 2012!
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