Fools, fools, all who didn't come to Athens. The return of the Olympic Games to their birthplace was an irresistibly romantic event that pried open the hearts of even confirmed skeptics. These Opening Ceremonies weren't a matter of the usual rote cliches about Olympic spirit, with the rampant cloying presence of children, floats and birds. They were instead a stunning emotional connection and they proved the point of a country: Greece is not just a destination for classics professors and rich ladies looking to buy summer jewelry. It's an ageless capital of the world.
"Who doesn't desire to see Athens is stupid; who sees it without liking it is even more stupid, but the height of stupidity is to see it, like it, and then leave it." Lysippus said that, in the 4th century B.C., and he was, and is, absolutely right.
As the phosphorous sun fell and white-hot Olympic rings burned in a lake on the floor of Athens Olympic Stadium, Athens proved to be not just a piece of archaeology, but a modern marvel. The Olympic stadium was a fabulous piece of theatrical trickery, shot through with lights and floating kite-sculptures. The ceremonies were alternately lovely and ingenious, artful in and of themselves as they portrayed what Edith Hamilton, author of "The Greek Way," called "that deep impress," left by the Ancients. The theme was the relationship between past and present day, and it was gorgeously stated.
Given the theme of the Opening Ceremonies, it seemed perfectly right and even important to ask how this modern competition resembles the original -- or whether it does at all. The answer is complicated, and not especially appealing to sentimentalists: All we really share with the Ancients are a few of our worst and best traits. For some reason, we like to think that history was more pure, and all traditions are honorable. It wasn't and they weren't. These Opening Ceremonies, for all of their beauty, didn't try to pretty up that fact. They had an emotional truthfulness: There were frightening gods, sex, and a woman with a glowing, pregnant belly. Message: All we really share with ancient Olympians is a humanity.
The truth is that Ancient Greeks competed naked rather than clothed, forbade females from contending for medals as well as watching, and didn't give prizes for second and third place, because all they cared about was winning. Moreover, the sacred truce didn't always work. Not all wars stopped.
Greg Anderson, an associate professor of classics at Wright State who studies games in Greek history, said: "The modern Olympics are essentially one huge invented modern tradition. Almost nothing about them is authentically ancient." Anderson, who has published in scholarly journals on the subject of Greek athletes and the Olympic tradition, does see some parallels between 700 B.C. and 2004, but not the ones you might expect. "The most 'authentic' features of the modern Games are the ruthless political and commercial exploitation that goes with them, the celebrity of leading athletes, and the sheer magnitude of the Olympics," he contends.
We do have that in common. A number of nations here are offering cash prizes to athletes who win medals; China will give about $24,000 to a gold medalist, while the Philippines is offering $143,000.
Ancient Greek champions had a huge sense of entitlement, as do our own. It's tempting to call Allen Iverson an example of the decay of the western world, after learning that he has been slapped with more than $4,000 in fines for parking his Rolls-Royce in a handicapped spot at the Philly airport for a week. But how is Iverson any different from the champion of Prytaneion, who, as reward for winning the Olympics, dined at public expense for the rest of his life?
It's fanciful of us to believe ancient champions only competed for a coveted garland of olive branches. In fact, they had odes written about themselves, and statues erected to their immortal fame, and were enormous celebrities. "But he who in contests or in war achieves the delicate glory is magnified to be given the supreme prize, splendor of speech from citizen and stranger," Pindar said.
We get a glimpse of the impatience Pindar, the poet of athletes, must have felt at the egotism of his subjects, some of whom dumbly preferred marble and bronze statues to his odes and discounted his art.
I am no maker of images, not one to fashion idols
But there is something else that stitches the modern Olympics to the ancient ones. And it's the most important thing. "The Greeks were the first people in the world to play, and they played on a grand scale," Hamilton wrote. "If we had no other knowledge of what the Greeks were like, if nothing were left of Greek art and literature, the fact that they were in love with play and played magnificently would be proof enough of how they lived and how they looked at life."
The Opening Ceremonies exuded that same magnificent love of play. There was the palpable sense that these Olympics have restored something to Athens. The city has been remade into a place in which even the ruined columns seem straighter with pride. According to Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis, 750,000 square meters of streets have been repaved, 250,000 square meters of sidewalks have been repaired, 1,400 apartment buildings have been cleaned and repainted, and 10,000 mature trees have been planted. Not even the depressingly slapstick affair of Greek sprinter-hero Kostas Kenteris, or the constant sight of athletes on cell phones when they were supposed to be wallowing in oneness with the world, could seriously detract from the triumphant mood.
A vital element of ancient Greek art is sport, and another vital element of it is nudity. The classic Greek Kouros, or figure, depicts a young man exercising his naked body. The word gymnastics and gymnasium derives from the word gymnos, meaning nude. Sport, therefore, is meant to depict man at his most beautifully naked and truthful. The Athens Opening Ceremonies did just that, and in the process made everyone here feel like an exuberant countryman.
"We are by our spiritual and mental inheritance partly Greek," Hamilton wrote, "and cannot escape if we would that deep influence which worked with power through the centuries, touching with light of reason and grace of beauty."