No woman has ever competed at Olympia

Updated: August 16, 2004, 8:32 PM ET
By Steve Woodward | Special to ESPN.com

OLYMPIA, Greece -- I stand beneath a blinding sun so intense that never again will I wonder how and why Greek women dressed as goddesses ignite the Olympic flame here every two years and send it on its journey to the Games.

Olympia
APAncient Olympia, about 200 miles west of Athens, is where the Olympics began.

Seeking shade, I find instead the sacred remains of the Temple of Zeus, enormous columns scattered like toothpicks by a sixth century earthquake. In its day the massive structure contained a statue of Zeus on his throne 42 feet tall. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Not far from the temple and other ruins that were once populated by an all-male training center for nude Greek athletes, a winding road intersects a narrow path. At the end of it is erected a simple monument surrounded by trees. Beneath this stone tower, the heart of Frenchman and modern Olympic Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin is buried.

Olympia is Greek mythology's homeland and an Olympic mecca, birthplace of amateur sport and organized, multi-event competition, a site were the Games slowly evolved over more than 1,000 years before Theodosius I ruled them illegal.

As I bake fully clothed on one of the gentle grassy inclines surrounding a narrow, rectangular "field" of parched soil -- the only defining characteristics of the famed "stadium" where the original ancient Olympic Games were born in 776 B.C. -- something other than history catches my eye. It is a G.E. Energy Rentals "Showpower" light tower high above one corner of the stadium, about 20 feet tall.

The Olympic Games, and progress, have come back to Olympia, a placid, remote village in western Peloponnesian Greece along the coast of the Gulf of Patras, more than 200 miles, or a four-hour drive from Olympic host city Athens.

The arrival of a G.E. light source (to assist television production) in this unspoiled, spiritual oasis might yet anger Zeus and his fellow gods, but it has the townsfolk of Olympia, not to mention the International Olympic Committee and American television rights holder NBC pulsing with anticipation of Wednesday's event that was moved here last year (from the Athens Olympic Stadium) in a stroke of wisdom: the men's and women's shot put.

Moving the event was a symbolic no-brainer -- the Games come home to Greece and then some -- but the decision was not without consequences. Olympia has no commercial air service, and even charters land about an hour's drive on a perilous roadway from the site. About 100 official Olympic family members (IOC and Athens organizers) will fly in and out of the area for the day. They will join athletes, event officials, 15,000 spectators and 300 credentialed print media and broadcasters making the journey.

Olympia has a population of about 11,100. It has one main street lined by shops (Athens 2004 licensed merchandise is displayed in a store front) and cafes. The immediate vicinity offers 17 hotels and inns, according to a tourism brochure, but the largest has only 147 rooms.

This, despite the fact that the arrival of the Games will more than double Olympia's population for at least 48 hours.

In keeping with the spirit of the ancient Games, 15,000 tickets will be given away -- 7,500 to people who purchased track and field tickets for Aug. 20 and 24 in Athens; 2,500 to Olympic sponsors and national Olympic committees combined; and 5,000 to the public at large across Greece.

"We have a [ticket] waiting list," said Sophia Hassapis, deputy venue manager for the event.

But Athens organizers insist they are not throwing the grounds of ancient Olympia up for grabs.

"We will not use any kind of decoration inside the stadium," Hassapis said. "It will be very plain. This is not a [sports] venue. This is an archaeological site, perhaps one of the most important in the world."

Although there are no banners to hang or bleachers to erect, more than 700 locals signed up to volunteer, and there will be plenty to do. Above the famous site is the International Olympic Academy, which has been adapted to house the shot put athletes and a media center for reporters and photographers.

Margarita Papadopoulos, the Olympia venue manager, stood in the midday heat last week pointing to the buildings where the Olympians will sleep, and to a pristine practice site surrounded by pine trees where they will train.

"And back there," she says, shrugging, "is the athletes' lounge, but it's not ready yet."

A week before the Games start, Olympia, in fact, is not ready to be a Games site because it is wide open to tourists and their buses. It will be a difficult area to secure in a modern-day sense, but organizers have created a perimeter with three checkpoints that as of last weekend, were not operational.

The ancient stadium was not to be "locked down" for the event until Monday, two days before the competition.

Even with bag searches and vehicle bans, it should be more audience friendly than in 776 B.C. It is recorded that women were forbidden to compete in the original Games. They also were forbidden to watch. Those that dared sneak a peak were sentenced to death.

Today, men and women are attracted to Olympia's stadium -- an earthy field of dreams -- to toe the enduring marble start line and stride over the sandy soil in an environment that is largely as it was 2,780 years ago minus the encouraged nudity.

On Wednesday, shot put medal winners will be awarded branches from Olympia's olive trees and, for a moment, the Games will be connected to their roots as even Baron de Coubertin might not have envisioned.

The 15,000 will surround the venue, seated on the grass, although Hassapis reveals that "a very modest and discrete place" will be constructed for the IOC members and other dignitaries to sit.

With Zeus already on edge, let us hope mobile phones and bottled water remain aboard the airport shuttle.