Putting the Shot in the Cradle of the Games

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"A field of dreams; a shot-put Nirvana." That's the description of this year's shot-put competition, held in the ancient home of the Games in the stadium at Olympia by U.S. silver medallist Adam Nelson on Wednesday. The fact that he'd just suffered a heartbreaking loss of the gold medal to Ukrainian Yuriy Bilonog in the finals seconds did nothing to dim his enthusiasm for an event whose venue captured the magic of the Athens Olympiad. And it was shared by competitors, coaches and spectators.

Bilonog complimented on the "beauty of the hospitality, accommodations and play of field"; Danish bronze medalist Joachim Olsen said, "The Greeks should be very proud; some may be disappointed in how the finished, but they all know they will never experience anything like this again; nothing will ever top this venue."

The international community of shot putters had arrived in Olympia last Sunday. They were housed amidst the ancient ruins of Olympia in the "Olympic Academy," making for their very own little Olympic Village. The Academy grounds, within walking distance of the ancient stadium, consist of a small complex of low Mediterranean-style buildings and athletic facilities, tucked away amidst a bucolic, woodsy hill setting dotted with olive and orange trees, eucalyptus and pine. Year round it draws historians, who come to research the ancient games, as well as young athletes who come for a sports camp. Wander the woods and you're just as likely to find a four-court basketball area as to stumble upon a ruin.

Being thrown together in this unique venue far away from their track-and-field teammates built an impressive camaraderie among shot putters from 44 countries, "The way they all intermingled, especially in the dining room, we'll never forget," said one coach. And whereas shot-putters often go unnoticed in the three-ring circus of most track-and-field events, at Olympia they had the 10,000-plus spectators all to the themselves. Said John Godina, one of the U.S. competitors who also suffered a disappointing finish after having been a medal favorite, "It was awesome to walk into this stadium. Thousands of people were there just for you, all wanting you to throw far."

Upon hearing that the event would be held on what was essentially an archaeological site, U.S. officials had wondered what conditions might prevail. Said U.S. coach Jeri Daniels Elder, "We were only concerned about the throwing circle (take-off areas), which is the only area that had to be constructed." Some four inches of ancient sod had to be tampered with to create the cement circles for the stadium's two competition shot put areas, but in the end, they were perfect too, the final touches added in the early evening prior to the day's competition. For the rest, there was little interference with the ancient stadium — besides a little tape and string here and there, the grounds were as they had been in A.D. 393, when they last hosted an Olympic competition.

Many of the spectators were local families, and advertising hoardings, food and souvenir kiosks, signage, broadcasting equipment and Port-O-Johns were all conspicuous by their absence. With no seating stands, no result boards, and only a few ropes to guide folk, the pristine stadium stood as it always has, bordered by grass embankments. The one to the northwest accommodated the spectators, who had secured their tickets free of charge, and the one to the southeast held the small group of media, coaching staff and the few dignitaries lucky enough to be afforded the luxury of temporary chairs.

The 38 athletes who paraded into the stadium to begin the women's morning qualification competition entered through a 2000-year-old archway from a "holding area" beyond the stadium that houses the ruins of temples to Hera and Zeus the Olympian. In ancient days, of course, women had been excluded from the games as spectators, let alone competitors, under penalty of death. At 8:30 a.m., American Kristin Heaston shot her first of three qualifying puts to become the first woman ever to compete at Olympia. When later approached, as she sat on the lawn watching the men compete, if she had realized the historical significance of her moment, she grinned, "Dude, I had no idea until it was pointed out to me afterwards. I'm so pissed — (hand on mouth) I guess I shouldn't say that, right? — I didn't do better, but, still man, it's just so awesome to be here."

As the men's competition unfolded to spirited cheers from the mostly local crowd (despite there being no Greek competitors in the men's event), the sun had risen high in the cloudless sky, the sound of Greek cicadas echoed from the surrounding woods, blankets were laid out, lotion was being applied, pictures were being snapped; it all made for what can be described only as one big lawn party. But for the athletes, the most powerful element was the sense of history afforded by the venue. Said German Raif Bartels, who along with Americans Nelson and Godina, made it to the afternoon's 12-men finals, "We are in the presence of greatness, and it's a true privilege. To think ancient Euros once were here; it's the competition of a lifetime; none of us will ever experience anything like this ever again."

Later that afternoon, Russian Irina Korzhane became the first, and perhaps only woman, ever to win a gold at Olympia. "I've been doing this for fifteen years," she said following her victory. "It's a great feeling to be part of history."

After Nelson lost the mens' gold by a whisker, and the sun began setting over the hills, a parade of 24 women in simple white sheaths descended from the northeast embankment of the stadium, bearing olive wreaths for each of the 24 finalists. It marked the end of what had been a truly remarkable day for its competitors and witnesses. As one member of the press commented on arriving back in Athens at 2:30 a.m., exactly 24 hours after departing for Olympia: "I'm exhausted, hungry, thirsty and covered in ancient dirt — and I'd do it over again."