ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece, Aug. 18 -- They walked past the remains of the Temple of Zeus, underneath the stone arch from 775 B.C. and emerged onto a patch of earth that last hosted an athletic competition in A.D. 393.
"You get a ghostly feeling, knowing of the people who were here before you," said U.S. shot putter Laura Gerraughty on Wednesday morning, the day the Games returned to Olympia -- centuries after the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned the original Games, branding the event a pagan festival.
Gold medal-winner Irina Korzhanenko of Russia throws the shot at Olympia, where 7,000 spectators watched from the hillside.
(Kieran Doherty -- Reuters)
A crowd of roughly 7,000 rose from the grassy berm as the women marched out in rows of two for the qualifying round of the shot put competition. Gerraughty's teammate, Kristin Heaston, became the first woman to turn, grunt and throw on these ancient grounds, heaving a 12-pound ball through history about 8:30 a.m.
Katerina Marinagi arrived at 7 a.m., with her husband, Demetrius, and her children, to witness the moment. Women were not allowed to watch the men of Olympia, who competed naked and were coated in olive oil, centuries ago. Punishment could mean being thrown off a nearby cliff.
"I am a woman, and women were forbidden to compete or watch here," Marinagi said, her eyes welling up prior to the start of the preliminaries. "I am proud of this day."
Olympia. Depending on the map, it is 190 miles southwest or 1,600 years from Athens. Laurel, pine and cypress trees ring the hills, and as a searing sun came up over the ridge before 7 a.m., the masses began pouring into this venue that time forgot. They ringed the field -- roughly 210 yards long and 30 yards wide -- and sat in the grass; there are no seats, no skyboxes.
Simplicity was the mark of the day. Only a white nylon rope and five feet separated some of the competitors from the spectators. No sponsorship was allowed, no electronic scoreboards were employed and only water was served in heat approaching 95 degrees. In the dusty pit of the Games' birth, the sporting grounds of the gods were once again excavated for the mortals. Greek history and myth blurred on a patch of dirt.
"To look out over these horizons and realize what happened here 1,000, 2,000 years ago . . . it just overwhelms you," South African shot putter Janus Robberts said.
By 676 B.C., 100 years after they began, the Ancient Games were opened to all male Greeks. They reached the pinnacle of popularity about 576 B.C. Like today, original Olympians sometimes faced opponents they thought had an unfair advantage. In A.D. 67, for instance, Nero entered a chariot race with 10 horses and ordered that other competitors could have only four.
And if those Games had boxing, they also plenty of bacchanalia. At the bottom of the steps on one side of the stadium reside the scant remains of the 5th-century B.C. Metroon, a temple dedicated to Rea, the mother of the gods. The Ancients apparently worshipped in this temple with orgies.
Most of the remnants of the temples and other buildings have been leveled by earthquakes, floods and 2,500 years. The stone outline of the room where athletes waited for competition still stands, as does the outline of the Priestess Hera's throne.
In the mid-19th century, the old athletic grounds were rediscovered and excavated, inspiring French nobleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin to launch a novel idea: Bring the Games back to Athens in 1896.
Known as the founder of the modern Games, de Coubertin so loved Olympia he asked that his heart be sent here after his death. It rests in a stele atop a hill above the old-world arena.
Shot put was selected as the one event that would least damage all of Olympia's remaining archeological treasures. The competitors on Wednesday threw on the same infield where the swift Leonidas of Rhodes sunk his toes into marble sills, which were used as starting blocks in the second century B.C. -- and still are astonishingly intact.
By the time the afternoon finals began, the crowd had swelled to nearly 20,000 who watched as Irina Korzhanenko of Russia and Ukrainian Yuriy Bilonog win the men's and women's gold medals. American Adam Nelson settled for silver after fouling on five of his six throws. Neither Gerraughty nor Heaston advanced to the finals.
Balvin Brown Jr. lent some modern dignity to the proceedings. The pharmaceutical salesman from Owings Mills, Md., proposed to Cleopatra Borel, his longtime girlfriend, who finished 11th while representing her native Trinidad and Tobago.
Brown met his fiancee while competing in track and field. Why not present Borel with a two-carat diamond after she was among the first group of women to compete here, Brown figured.
Only once did a woman watch without consequence in old Olympia. In 404 B.C., Kalipateira from Rhodes cut her long locks and disguised herself as a man. But the jig was up when she became animated while watching one of her son's victories. Attempting to scale a trainer's barrier, she caught the fringe of her tunic and was exposed to the crowd.
Since her father, brothers and sons were Olympic champions, Kalipateira got off with a warning.
"She was the first to watch," said Marinagi, who drove four hours with her family from Athens. "And I am the second one."
American John Godina, who finished ninth, was asked if he would ever want to return to the simpler time of the Ancient Games.
"No," Godina said. "Clothing is nice. You guys wouldn't want us to throw naked."