When the 2004 Olympic Games begin this week, they will have more than 2,500 years of history behind them -- and two hour-long documentaries from the Discovery Channel take viewers back to the start.
"The First Olympian" uses modern science to re-create the life of an ancient Olympian whose grave was discovered in 1959. "The Seven Wonders of Ancient Greece" looks at the great accomplishments of Greek society, including the early years of the Games.
"First Olympian" focuses on a specific man -- the Athlete of Taranto -- whose grave was found in southern Italy, where a Greek outpost existed about 2,500 years ago. He became a direct link to a lost world.
"It's a very personal story that becomes humanized," said Judy Plavnick, executive producer of "First Olympian," which was co-produced by the BBC. "It's not just about the bones that they found in 1959, but it's a re-creation that gives insight into how they lived, what they ate, his whole lifestyle, not just the sports he played."
Archaeologists studied intricate jars found in the Athlete of Taranto's grave and pieced together some aspects of his life, while forensic scientists examined his bones and determined the state of his health.
Then, using casts of the athlete's bones, bio-mechanics experts reconstructed the details of how the Athlete of Taranto might have looked.
"He had broad shoulders, powerful arms, a strong back, explosive legs and classic good looks," the documentary says.
Scientists reasoned that he was a powerful jumper, but they wanted to know how well an ancient athlete would compare with a champion of today.
Painstakingly, scientists used computer models with forensic science and some engineering to work out the strength of the early athlete. By comparing his bones and muscular development with a modern athlete's, they were able to stage a computer-assisted jumping competition.
The documentary "has given him a face and the opportunity to compete again," Plavnick said.
The Athlete of Taranto, Plavnick added, "doesn't look different from someone you'd see walking down the street -- but hopefully with more clothing."
Anton Powell, director of the University of Wales Institute of the Classics, worked on another Discovery documentary, "Seven Wonders," which spotlights accomplishments of Ancient Greece.
"It's a taste of the physical achievements of the Greeks," Powell said, and the program gives a broad sense of the culture from which the Games have evolved.
In addition to the Olympics, the program looks at mythology
and fact about the Palace of Knossos, the Oracle at Delphi, the Theater of Epidaurus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the
lost city of Atlantis and the Parthenon.
"Seven Wonders" shows the early Games as warlike competitions that resulted in an incredible spectacle with only one victor.
"It was nice to be able to see the early Olympics as the quite contested and tabloid events that they were," he said.
Powell said there were aspects of the Olympics that the show didn't touch on, such as commercialism and cheating.
"There is an ancient saying that some would come to compete, others to watch and others to buy and sell. There's a direct route from the ancient merchants selling meat and wine to the modern [sponsors]. People complain about commercialism, but the Games always have been commercial," Powell said.
Cheating, including bribing officials, was a great concern, he said. Those who were caught had to spend a lot of money to set up a special statue to Zeus, the chief deity, with their name on it -- a punishment that was the exact opposite of what contestants desired.
"Instead of eternal fame for your achievement, you got infamy," Powell said. "And there were countless such statues left at Olympia."
Though there was a truce when the Games were conducted, the whole atmosphere was deeply warlike, he said. Religion also played a huge part in the ancient Games, and there were enormous sacrifices, again to Zeus.
"There were large numbers of cattle that were killed for Zeus -- and it was rather convenient because he liked the fat and bones," which left the meat for the humans to enjoy, Powell said.
The skills of war inspired many events, according to the documentary. Discus throwing was based on throwing stones, one of the most primitive kinds of warfare, while running and wrestling also were important battlefield skills.
Victors won a lifetime of indulgences.
"The Greek who won the Olympic Games didn't get a medal of precious metal. All he got was a ribbon around his head, a palm branch to wave around the stadium and an olive wreath to take home," the documentary says.
"His real reward started when he got home. He was allowed his pick of the spectacular heiresses in the town, he'd get a good meal at public expense for the rest of his life -- and over it all, the fame. [He would] be smiled at and pointed at for the rest of his life."
On Thursday on Discovery:
SEVEN WONDERS OF ANCIENT GREECE
at 9 p.m.
at 10 p.m.