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COLUMNISTS

Tue, August 17, 2004

Touching ancient history


From the nosebleed seats, the sightlines are incredible -- not just for the field of play but some of the splendour of this ancient city.

There are no luxury boxes -- most 2,300 year-old stadiums are lacking those.

However, at the closed end of the horseshoe-shaped marvel, two throne-like seats are carved in marble, presumably for the rulers of the day.

We take you to the ancient Panathinaiko Stadium, home this week to the Olympic archery competition.

Sliced into the side of one of downtown Athens' many ancient hills, the storied stadium has been home to much, much more.

The original was built in 430 BC, give or take a year, the current version in time for the 1896 Olympics, the birth of the modern Games.

Sitting toward the top of the stadium yesterday watching Toronto's Jonathan Ohayon take aim at Olympic glory, was a magical experience.

There is a spectacular view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon that dominates it just one kilometre off in the distance. What an intimidating image that must have been for the visiting squads of any day.

"When I walked in, it pretty much sent shivers down your back," Ohayon said. "It is the stadium for the Olympics. It is what the Olympic Games for so many people are about."

Ohayon's Olympic life may have been a memorable one but it was short-lived as he lost his match to Viktor Ruban of Ukraine, 157-140.

The elimination did little to dull Ohayon's experience, nor that of the hundreds of spectators, many who seemed more interested in the aura than the action.

The history lesson tells us the original structure was built by Lycurgus of Athens for a sporting festival known as the Panathenaean Games.

The second version came under the rule of Herod Atticus about 144 AD and was eventually eroded into ruins.

But archaeologists were familiar with the site so when the modern Olympic movement was conceived during the late 1800s, it was rebuilt of marble from Greece's Mount Pentelikon.

Panathinaiko has been given a nice shine for these Games, an almost glistening white to the amphitheatre-like setting. Originally it was only to be the finish line for the marathon, but archery was added to help show it off to the world.

Given the way in which the Greeks treasure their past and the historical ties this stadium has to the Olympic movement, Panathinaiko will be a treasured face to this Olympiad.

"We are very proud of this stadium and all of our history," Athens resident Foteini Pontizari said. "It is beautiful and special to us that the rest of the world will get a chance to see it."

Since it is still an historical site owned by the Hellenic Olympic Committee, there are strict rules. No food or drink in the stadium, no washrooms within its confines and guards who watch carefully for anyone considering damage to what is in effect a mammoth historic artifact.

Turns out it wasn't the best venue for archery, however. It was bad enough that winds were high yesterday, but given the design of the stadium, they were swirling -- not the best in a test of precision.

Not that it mattered to many.

"To think this is where the first modern Games began, right here ... the athletes who competed in those touched these same walls that I'm touching," American archer John Magera said.

"All I can say is it's very humbling. It's an honour to be in this beautiful stadium."

An honour just to look at it, in fact.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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