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Michael Wilbon

In Athens, the New Can't Hold a Torch to the Ancient

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, August 9, 2004; Page D01

ATHENS

It's just fine here, thank you. The smog is about the same as it is in Los Angeles. The humidity is only half as bad as most days in Washington. The traffic is what you get on the average weekday driving the I-94 into downtown Chicago. The security is what we have come to expect around the U.S. Capitol or the Holland Tunnel when the threat level is raised. God only knows what the state of the world will bring us between now and the end of these Summer Olympics, so there's no sense in feeling too cocky or naively at ease. But today is as promising as any day ever is one week before the start of the Games.

Yes, with five days to go before the Opening Ceremonies, people are paving and painting and erecting stuff. The most ready of all the stadiums appears to be the Olympic Stadium, but I'm talking about the one built for the 1896 Games, the one whose glistening marble bowl still seats 65,000 people and somehow, despite being 108 years old, is infinitely more attractive and in better shape than, say, RFK Stadium. Maybe the Expos could play here. Otherwise, well, anybody attending an event the first few days might want to wear white, since wet paint will be everywhere.

_____ Countdown to Athens _____
 Olympics
The Olympics are less than a week away and organizers are pulling the pieces together for the Aug. 13 opening.

_____ From The Post _____
Dana Vollmer will be one of those tales of courage that come up during the Olympics.
Michael Wilbon: In Athens, the new can't hold a torch to the ancient.
Lauryn Williams is far more interested in chasing goals she can see rather than those she can imagine.
Notebook: Jerome Young reportedly tested positive for the banned drug EPO at a meet last month.

_____ Live Online _____
Tony Azevedo, the top scorer on the U.S. Men's Water Polo team, took questions July 28.
Alexander Kitroeff discussed his book, "Wrestling with the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics," and the history of the Games on July 27.

_____ On Our Site _____
Photos: Swimming trials.
Photos: Track and field trials.

_____ Swimming's Wonder Boy _____
 Phelps
Phelps's main training partners and buddies reflect on blown chances. (July 27)
Coach Bob Bowman has been the guiding force for Phelps. (July 4)
Gallery: Coach shows the way to Athens.
Numerous endorsements already have made Phelps a millionaire. (June 1)
Gallery: The road to the Games are paved with gold.
Phelps expected to be the Games' most-decorated athlete. (April 18)
Gallery: Phelps making a splash.

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On the topic of tardiness, Greeks joke openly about how chronically late they are, how dinner at 9:30 really means 10 o'clock for men, 10:15 for women. This seems eerily akin to what we Americans who used to be called colored people refer to as C.P. time, so I'm right at home as it relates to the clock. Anyway, five days is a lot of time to make the final preparations; time enough for the U.S. men's basketball team to get smacked around again by one of the many international teams with more talent and hubris than most Americans understand or appreciate, time enough for Sean Taylor to hire another agent, fire that agent, then hire another.

Still, it seems about time to welcome everybody to our excellent summer adventure in Athens, where I came hoping to experience something radically different than I'd get at home. Instead I've arrived to find young Greek men driving tricked out cars -- so what if it's usually a Renault hatchback -- with rims spinning like they've all been studying MTV's "Pimp My Ride." Switch on the TV and there's the Greek "Survivor" on Athens's Channel 4 a half-hour past midnight on Saturday. And practically all day the "Mad Video" channel brings everything from Chingy to my new favorite rap group, La Sagrada Familia, where three Greek homeys are not only rockin' the best hip-hop tune in Europe (yes, in Greek, silly) but doing it while wearing Larry Bird and Magic Johnson jerseys. I have no idea what they're saying, but I have no idea what Juvenile and 'Lil John are saying, either. Walking the streets of Athens you hear so much hip-hop, specifically strains of "In Da Club," it seems as if 50 Cent is to Greece what Jerry Lewis is to France.

This is the space and the time in which Kornheiser used to welcome The Post readers to the Summer Olympics, to Los Angeles and Seoul, to Barcelona and Atlanta. He'd take you through the streets, to the sounds and smells of Olympic cities, from Kimchi to tapas. That, of course, was when he was a working sportswriter and long before he became such a diva that Jason Alexander agreed to play him during prime time on television (check local listings after Labor Day). Kornheiser, as soon as he arrived at the Winter or Summer Games, took you through all the intimate details of his excellent adventure, which I won't do. I won't dwell on Santorini being the most soothing place I've ever seen, or walking through the 1,500-year-old ruins of ancient Ephesus or buying a handmade double-knotted rug in an ancient seaside Turkish town called Kushadasi from a guy named Atilla Aydin, in whose shop I learned that Mike Tyson had been knocked out by another Brit. First Lennox Lewis, then some tea-drinking stiff club fighter nobody ever heard of. If this keeps up the next guy begging Bob Arum for a shot at Tyson will be Hugh Grant.

Nope, I'm not going to mention any of that self-indulgent what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation stuff, not even the best part of it, which, unquestionably, is getting away long enough to bail on NFL training camps in the United States (specifically Redskins camp) and all the overblown camp stories my brethren in print and TV treat like the moon landing.

So, I'll skip all that junk and tell you about performance enhancement. Specifically, ancient performance enhancement. You think the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative is a groundbreaking stuff? BALCO is nothing. Somebody has a trainer with a syringe or, better yet, some topical solution to rub in a steroid and the whole thing, as distasteful as it is, barely produces a frown.

You know what the ancient Greek athletes reportedly ate to enhance their performances?

Sheep testicles.

That's right, a taste of that delicacy was said to raise the testosterone level of the boxers, wrestlers, bull-jumpers or anybody else in ancient times who had the nerve to let that pass his lips.

Sheep testicles, baby. That and strychnine reduced with a little bit of wine. The International Herald Tribune carried a story last week that told of the 1904 marathon winner, Thomas Hicks, needing four physicians to revive him after his victory because he had a little strychnine to go with his brandy and passed out.

Nothing's new. The stadiums certainly aren't new in this part of the world. A soccer stadium that is home to one of the local teams in Istanbul is called "the new stadium" and it's said to have been built in 1917, just after our "ancient" Wrigley Field and Fenway Park were constructed. Older yet, there are ruins in the archeological museum in Athens that include a marble frieze from somewhere between 510 and 500 B.C. depicting a contest that looked remarkably like modern hockey, which served as the headstone of a grave where a great athlete was buried.

The first lesson, then, is one we never seem to learn in America, that old indeed can be good, whether we're talking about stadiums, contests, cheating or brandy -- as long as there's enough to wash down a second helping of those sheep testicles.


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