Back in the Running

A Dig in Greece Revives the Idea of the Panhellenic Games With Footraces Like Those of 330 B.C.

by Gretchen Kell

An ancient Greek stadium where athletes once competed in the Panhellenic Games will come to life again on June 1, 1996, with races open to anyone wishing to run barefoot--as runners did more than 2,000 years ago, a Berkeley professor who excavated the site has announced.

But unlike the Olympics, these international foot races in Ancient Nemea--an agricultural community of 450 people about 20 miles south of Corinth--will not be for trained athletes.

"The Olympic movement is a symbol of the nobler aspirations of our human race," said Stephen G. Miller, a classics professor who has led archaeological digs in the village for 22 years and is a promoter of the 1996 Nemean Games. "But it also is increasingly removed from those who are not extraordinarily athletically gifted."

"The average person can participate in the Nemean Games," he said. "No records will be kept or medals given, but all participants will be rewarded by feet sore from contact with the same stones and soil where ancient feet once ran."

Among the discoveries that Miller and his team have made since 1974 on the 45-acre site are the stadium and track, a temple to Zeus, a graffiti-covered tunnel through which the athletes entered the stadium, a bathhouse and locker room.

In 1993, Miller led the reconstruction in Ancient Nemea of a starting device made of wood, rope and cord that launched foot races there as early as 330 B.C.

On Jan. 31, Miller also announced that, beginning in 1997, he and his team hope to begin unearthing at the site a hippodrome where equestrian events were held.

No Greek hippodrome has yet been found, including at the three other sites of the ancient Panhellenic Games--Olympia, Isthmia and Delphi.

Miller made his latest research news public at a special campus lecture for donors who support Berkeley's excavations at Nemea.

The 1996 Nemean Games are being organized by the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games, a group formed in December by about 25 residents of Ancient Nemea and New Nemea, a nearby city of 6,500. "Berkeley set the tone and tenor and has shown the way," said Miller. "Now that we have prepared the field, the local residents are picking up the ball."

In the Nemea area, some 30 families already have volunteered to house any participants under age 18 in their homes and at the local schoolhouse. A post-games party is being planned.

But planners are thinking big, sending announcements around the world--to school children as well as to former U.S. presidents, Hollywood stars and foreign correspondents. Greek Minister of Culture Thanos Mikroutsikos, U.S. Ambassador to Greece Thomas Niles, state Sen. Nick Petris, D-Oakland, and Chancellor Tien already have joined the society's honorary committee.

For Miller, the games are a creative way of letting the public experience and learn from what he has been excavating.

"I've always felt strongly that excavation for its own sake is ridiculous, like carrying out an experiment in a lab without application," he said. "Scholarly publications are important, but so are making results available to the general public."

During his presentation Jan. 31, Miller showed two videotapes, one on the history of the Nemea project and the other on the opening of the stadium last year as an archaeological park. Some 1,500 spectators at the celebration watched barefoot children in white tunics run foot races on the ancient track.

The San Francisco Boys Chorus sang Greek folk songs Jan. 31, just as they had at the stadium dedication in Greece last July.

Miller said Berkeley became interested in excavating Ancient Nemea in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, particularly because of "the phenomenon of Pan-hellenism." ("Panhellenic" means "open to all Greeks").

"To participate in this event," he said, "all Greeks...would stop wars and hostilities each year for a voluntary week or two of peace. It was the first voluntary cessation of war in the recorded history of mankind."

The American School of Classical Studies in Athens granted Berkeley the excavation rights, and Miller was hired in 1971 to lead the project.

Parmenion Demetriou, then the mayor of New Nemea, had had a lifelong interest in reviving the Nemean Games. Before Berkeley archaeologists arrived in Greece, he had tried in vain to buy up land in Ancient Nemea.

"Then Berkeley, like the cavalry, came to the rescue," said Miller. "He was overjoyed." Demetriou then helped Berkeley convince landowners to sell their vineyards and olive groves for the project.

Another Greek, a writer named Demetrios Kalles, did paperwork for the land purchases without charge.

"Over the years, Berkeley's presence became incredibly interwoven in the fabric of the village," said Miller.

Unfortunately, he said, Demetriou, Kalles, and Thomas Long--an alumnus and major donor to the project--all died in 1992 and 1993.

Miller said he can't estimate how many people will sign up to run in the games. The stadium can hold 30,000 to 40,000 spectators.

Races, organized by gender and age, will re-enact those in ancient times with the original track and starting device, judges dressed in black with sticks to punish runners who start prematurely, a herald to shout out participants' names, a trumpeteer and crowns of wild celery for the winners.

But no one will run nude, as athletes did in the Panhellenic Games.

"Sometimes the spirit of the games is more important than authenticity," said Miller.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail