The view from Olympia

Posted: Aug 05, 2004 12:00 AM

OLYMPIA, Greece -- With the Olympics starting next week, do any of you remember Milton of Kroton, Diagoras of Rhodes or Theagenes of Thasos? Probably not: They?re not household names today, although when they had their shining moments in this city, poets said their fame would live forever.

 Milton and company were among the 4,237 athletes declared to be champions during the 293 Olympiads that took place here over 1,169 years between 776 B.C. and A.D. 393. Those are big numbers, but all the winners came ambitiously to the big dirt field here that is hugely hot and stridently sunny at this time of year.

 Sports made participants and spectators fanatical. They braved the risk of heat prostration, especially since caps were not allowed among either runners or viewers. The philosopher Thales of Miletus may have been a wise man, but he died in 547 B.C. after suffering sunstroke here. Other famous fans, including Plato and Aristotle, survived.

 Although most athletes theoretically were amateurs, they often received training subsidies and in essence earned their living from sports. The value of prizes sometimes soared into the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. A victor received lifetime free meals, exemption from taxes, and seats of honor in the theater and at festivals. Poets wrote hymns in his honor.

 The Olympics became bigger and longer over the centuries. Lasting only one day initially and including only sprints, officials over the games? first century added middle- and long-distance events, wrestling, boxing and chariot races. From 472 B.C. on, the Olympic games lasted five days, with huge crowds eating and sleeping in tents. Famous poets such as Pindar wrote odes to champions, and sculptors such as Pythagoras of Samos and Polykleitos of Argos received contracts to honor the best in stone.

 The basic sprint distance was one stadium, which equaled about 208 yards. Another race was about three miles long. Those events, along with others like the javelin throw, would not look all that different from ones to be held this month. Others would: For the long jump, jumpers held heavy stones or lead weights in each hand. Jumpers ran up to the starting board and swung their weights backward and forward with arms outstretched. They then leaped, throwing the weights behind them just before they landed.

 This year?s Olympics pay tribute to the ancients by having the shotput event take place here. But one ancient event with far greater fan appeal is not on the schedule: The Pankration was a combination of wrestling and boxing in which everything was permitted except biting and gouging out eyes (although that was allowed in non-Olympic matches held in Sparta).

 The games were for men only, and they performed in the nude. In theory, any Greek male who had not committed a crime or sacrilege could participate. In practice, athletes had to show up a month ahead of the games so judges could assess their ability, ethics and character.

 Overt cheating -- such as tripping up opponents in races -- sometimes occurred, but the invisible kind -- bribing an athlete to take a dive -- was more dangerous. Officials dealt with that threat by forcing cheaters to pay to erect bronze statues of Zeus on pillars engraved with their names, specific infringements and the fines they had to pay. Almost 23 feet of silt covered the sites here until they were excavated beginning in 1876, and the pillars in that hall of shame are once again visible.

 Much else will be visible this month, as new names come to the tips of our tongues, only to be forgotten next month. Is it consolation or threat that, despite all our technological advances, the Olympics are still the same old story, a fight for love and glory? The games do help us to recognize our human nature, for the fundamental things still apply, as time goes by.