Be worthy of victory: the Nemean Games
Trip Start Jun 14, 2008
26Trip End Jul 01, 2008
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The story of the founding of the ancient Nemean Games is this: when one of the Seven Against Thebes King Lykourgos of Nemea was marching against Thebes, he gave his infant son Opheltes into the care of a serving woman while he got a drink from a spring. He told her not to lay him on the ground as an oracle had prophesied that the baby would die if he was placed on earth before he could walk. So the serving woman laid him on a bed of wild celery, and the snake that was the guardian of the spring bit him to death
What I find interesting, and merciful, about this story, is that the king didn't blame or punish the serving woman, but killed the snake. He founded the Nemean Games in honour of his tiny deceased son, and to this day the judges wear black cloaks, as if in mourning, and the victors are crowned with wild celery wreaths.
I say to this day because, in 1996, a group of people in Nemea decided to recreate the ancient games as close to the original as possible, inviting anyone and everyone to participate, and adding in recitals and other cultural events. Since then - four Games later - they've attracted international attention and sponsorship, not to mention a goodly crowd.
The organizing committee has had to make some accommodations. The last 200 metres or so of the stadion have fallen off the hill over the centuries due to erosion, so the short races are by necessity shorter (89 metres). They've limited the events to those sprints plus a 7,500-metre cross-country race. You see officials (identifiable by their different-coloured chitons and robes) wearing watches, one Spartan of statuesque build was talking on a cellphone, and I'm pretty sure that the media in ancient times didn't have sound-booms
But the costumes, the facilities and the procedures are recreated as faithfully as possible from the research. If you run, you go barefoot, you wear a white chiton, and you swear the ancient oath that you won't cheat in any way. "Be worthy of victory" is part of what the judges say to each athlete beforehand. All announcements are made without artificial amplification, preceded by the tuneful blast of an ancient-style trumpet. The winners are handed palm branches, which makes them really easy to pick out from the crowd, which I think must have been the idea. There was even a group of Spartan re-enactors, complete with weapons and armour, who ran a race wearing shields and helmets as was traditional in pan-Hellenic games.
The sprinters curl their bare toes around the ancient grooves in the original starting line, and start on the fall of a device with two poles at either end of the line joined by two ropes in front of the runner, is released. (Interestingly, it used, and uses, torsion springs: the same technology as ancient catapults.) The spectators sit on long carpets on the bare ground, and they cheer on their relatives and friends who are racing
The runners are sorted by age-group as in ancient times, and ranged from one four-year-old to seniors -- there was even a man of 71 who ran the long race. Women are as welcome as men to run, even though they were barred even from watching the ancient Olympic Games... they had their own games, the Heraia, contested in honour of Hera. But because participation, not competition, is the idea here, the atmosphere is caring and the vying is all friendly, and the only time the crowd got at all testy was during a long poetry recital that was all in English... they wanted it, quite rightly, in Greek. The most vociferous gentleman was standing right next to me as I shot a video of the recital, so everything he said is on record, if I could understand it.
What struck me the most was the superimposition of the spirituality and athleticism, of the sacred and the physical. That ethic -- that physical excellence is divine -- we may pay some homage to in our societal obsesssion with sports; but we no longer formalize it, and we no longer celebrate the human body as something beautiful without sexualizing it
I seem to have wandered thoroughly away from Alexander as a topic, so here's a bit of an excerpt from the novel. The ancient biographer Plutarch mentioned that Alexander once ran a race against one Krison of Himera in Athens. My version of it goes like this:
They'd heard Philip's son was a runner, so I was asked if I'd like to race a man who'd won crowns at the Olympics, one Krison of Himera. It was a challenge that was an honour to me, and so he and I stripped and took the starting line in the stadion of Athens. A fairly big crowd had come out to see the orgy-wallowing Mak prince go up against the almost-local boy who therefore was the pride of Athens, at least for a day. They cheered politely for both of us, though their hearts were with him, of course.
We sprang out together on the signal, and it was clear right away that he was my better. I put all my heart into it anyway, for my honour
Maybe it wasn't his fault; maybe he had orders. Athenians may not know how to treat royalty, but they're the worst people for flattery, excelling in all things oral, at least today. I can't believe they were that way in the days of Sokrates and Plato. But I didn't think of that then, the fire of rage at him alone spreading through my limbs. "So, Krison, you'd hand me a victory I didn't earn fairly," I bellowed at him over the crowd's roar, "and you think first I'd be fooled, and second I'd be pleased? Count yourself as running for your life as well as the crown, then, you Athenian piece of s**t, because if I catch you I'll kill you."
He easily left me in his dust. Of course manners required that he should stay to accept my congratulations afterwards; in truth, he looked as if he wanted to keep right on running. "Yes, I thank you too, Prince Alexander," I remember him panting, "you're welcome, yes, thanks, all the Gods bless you, yes, thanks, you're welcome..." I pulled him into a hug as if nothing had happened.