Wonder how the modern games relate to the ancient ones? You've come to the right place. Dr. David Gilman Romano, an internationally renowned expert on the ancient Olympic games, and Senior Research Scientist at Penn Museum, attended the 2004 Athens Olympic Games with his family. During his trip, Dr. Romano shared his thoughts in an online journal, looking at the festivities through the lens of an anthropologist. Below is an archived version of the journal.

August 10, 2004
11:00 pm

From this Ionian island, to the west of ancient Olympia, all eyes are focused on the fast approaching Olympic Games in Athens. Television news reports continuously, all day long, Olympics-related stories. The tourist shops are filled with official Olympic items (see photograph) and visitors to this island wear colorful Olympic hats and shirts. The opening ceremony will take place on Friday night in Athens.

The Olympic flame and relay is closing in on the Olympic Stadium. Live reports covered this relay as it inaugurated, last Saturday, the new 2556 m. cable span bridge that links the Peloponnesos with northwestern Greece, the Rion-Antirion Bridge. The bridge opened 6 months ahead of schedule and within budget according to newspaper reports!

There was no such torch relay as a part of the ancient Olympic Games, although torch relays were known at other religious festivals, for instance at Athens. The modern torch relay was begun as a part of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, although the idea of the Olympic flame was introduced at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam and was also a part of the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1932.

Kephalonia is one of the islands that may have been home to the mythological hero Odysseus. There is a hot debate among scholars regarding whether the adjacent island of Ithaki or Kephalonia is the home of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. Odysseus was one of the first Greek athletes in western literature. According to the story, following the Trojan War (ca. 1200 B.C.) he wandered the Greek islands trying to find his way home. On his journey he was hosted by the Phaeacians who welcomed him and showed him athletic contests after dinner and eventually asked him to compete as an athlete. The contests held were boxing, wrestling, a footrace, long jump and discus. Odysseus took part only in the discus event and beat his opposition.

Watch for references to Odysseus and the Trojan War at the Opening Ceremony on Friday night!


August 13, 2004
Ancient Olympia
6:30 pm

Caption: Standing in front of the vaulted entrance to the stadium at Olympia are, left to right, Lizzie Romano, Anne-Marie Boucher, Patrice Boucher, Sarah Romano and in back row, David Romano. Photo by Irene Romano.

The XXVIII Modern Olympic Games begin in Athens this evening with the gala opening ceremony. The Greek press is calling the Athens Olympics 2004 “the festival of all festivals.” The Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, some 5 hours west of Athens, hosted almost 1200 years of festivals, one every four years. Theirs was of course a religious festival and ours a secular one; the Olympic festival became the most famous one in the ancient world. In antiquity, most athletes, coaches, dignitaries and visitors came by sea, as we have done today from the island of Kephalonia.

The Sanctuary of Zeus is filled with tourists on this Friday, a national holiday in honor of the opening of the Olympic Games. The archaeological site is well manicured and new signs guide the visitor. The Temple of Zeus, built in the middle of the fifth century B.C., is experiencing a new look with a reconstructed column just completed. The colossal gold and ivory statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was once situated inside this building. The Olympic Stadium, clean and spare, with its vaulted entrance greets tourists today, just as it welcomed the athletes and judges in antiquity (see photograph). The shot put event of the Athens 2004 games will be held here on August 18.

The archaeological museum in Olympia has recently reopened after major refurbishment. It is air conditioned and its displays are among the best I have seen in Greece. There is also a new Ancient Olympic Games Museum nearby with exhibits relating to the ancient athletic contests themselves. The little town of Olympia is bustling with tourist shops, cafes and restaurants. You can buy reproductions of ancient vases, sculpture, as well as all kinds of clothing and knick knacks.

The Greek Post Office has announced recently that it would reward every Greek athlete who wins a medal at the games with up to 100,000 Euros, while at the same time printing their image on a new stamp (within 3 days of their victory!!!). The prize values are the following: 100,000 Euros for a gold medal; 50,000 Euros for a silver medal and 25,000 for a bronze medal. Just yesterday in the news was the report that the Russian government will reward Russian Olympic medal victors with tax free payments of $50,000 for gold medalists; $20,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. These recent developments have parallels in antiquity since ancient Olympic victors routinely received cash payments from their home towns. From the 6th century B.C. Athenian Olympic victors received a payment of 500 drachmai, a fortune, as well as a free meal everyday for the rest of their lives and front seats at the theater. Olympic victors could also erect an image of themselves usually in the form of a statue in the sacred ‘altis’ at Olympia. They would have liked the idea of the stamp, no doubt about it!

Finally, a cloud has hung over the Greek coverage of the Athens Olympic Games since yesterday after two of Greece’s finest athletes missed their IOC drug tests, and then were tragically involved in a motorcycle accident. The athletes involved are Konstantinos Kenteris, the 200 m. gold medalist from Sydney and Katerina Thanou, the 100 m. silver medalist. Headline news on Greek TV today translates to “Greece is frozen (waiting for news.)” The IOC plans to hold hearings on this matter. There was no drug testing in antiquity, and to our knowledge no evidence for performance enhancing substances from the ancient Olympic Games. Ancient athletes may have tried to enhance their performances, but I can find no hard evidence to document it.


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