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ATHENS 2004 | Bill Plaschke

They Still Have the Spirit of 776

August 08, 2004|Bill Plaschke

Greece, again?

Only 2,780 years since the first Olympics were held there, the Summer Games return this month with a sense of deja-Zeus.

Rounding third and heading for Homer, the hesitant sports world should fear not, for it is sliding into familiar territory.

The early Olympians, for example, competed naked.

These Olympians will feature Amanda Beard, a swimmer who posed for FHM, and Amy Acuff, a high jumper who leaped into Playboy.

The early Olympics were free.

With only one-third of the 5.3 million available tickets sold, the bosses at these Olympics might be handing out more comps than any Vegas casino.

The first Olympic champion was a cook named Coroibos.

These Olympics could include a triathlon champion, Barb Lindquist, who is opening a bed-and-breakfast.

The early Olympics were a five-day affair attended by thousands of drunken, stinky spectators who camped in nearby fields and routinely died of heatstroke.

For these Olympics, our company is supplying us with gas masks.

Even though their pass list included Plato and ours includes Ebersol -- advantage, ancients -- doesn't it feel eerily similar?

OK, so those first Games were held in Olympia whereas, with the exception of the shotput, these Games will be held about 240 miles east in Athens. But it's all Greek to us.

Games then and now had statuesque memorials to Nike -- their figure was cast in stone, ours is named Serena.

Games then and now had coaches who could figure out a triangle -- they had Pythagoras, we have Larry Brown.

And Games then and now had leeches -- their athletes used them to cure sprained ankles, our athletes use them to negotiate cereal commercials.

The link is best epitomized by Epictetus, a philosopher who moonlighted as an Olympic sports columnist in the first century.

If he were alive today, Epictetus would be 1,949 years old, too young to appear on ESPN's "Sports Reporters," but we'll quote him nonetheless:

"You say, 'I want to win at Olympia.' ... Then in the contest itself, you must gouge and be gouged.... There will be times when you sprain a wrist, turn your ankle, swallow mouthfuls of sand, and be flogged ... and after all that, there are times when you lose."

Sounds about right.

This year's gouging will be by Athens cabbies, the sprained wrists and twisted ankles will be caused by those trying to negotiate the city's crowded and chaotic streets.

The mouthfuls of sand will be swallowed by U.S. athletes who think the steroid issue is overblown, only to discover that foreign journalists want to talk about little else.

The flogging will occur when -- not if -- one of our holier-than-thou countrymen tests positive.

According to research culled by searching Dead Sea websites and a wonderful Tony Perrottet primer called "The Naked Olympics," the early Games were a pagan religious celebration that featured several sports with familiar twists.

There were sprints -- but sometimes the runners wore armor. Their sprinters were covered in metal, ours are covered in ink.

There was a long jump -- but with weights. Marion Jones, competing under the burden of steroid questions, knows all about that.

There was boxing -- but no ring, no rounds, only blows to the head, and sometimes bouts lasted two days.

Even then, the sport was full of nuts, among them Demoxenos of Syracuse, who tried to end a long match by piercing his opponent's stomach and pulling out his intestines. Quickly disqualified, Demoxenos of Syracuse was immediately signed by Arumis of Las Vegas.

Then, of course, there were the wrestlers, Rulon Gardners in togas, complete with ancient versions of snowmobile accidents and motorcycle crashes.

Milo, a wrestler who won five Olympic golds, was once walking through the countryside when he came upon a fallen tree trunk. He tried to break it in two, but his hands became stuck in the trunk and he was eventually eaten by wolves.

The ancient Olympics, held every four years, same as today, were eventually canceled by those killjoy Romans -- the Romans had conquered the Greeks by then -- in 393 A.D., something about it being too hard to drum up sponsors for a pagan party.

But let us not forget how the Games under the Romans paved the way for corrupt judging -- Roman emperor Nero crashed and didn't even finish the chariot race yet was given the gold medal.

Let us remember that, although women could not compete in the early Games, they were allowed to race through Olympia in demonstration sprints, running with their right breasts exposed, setting the stage for Janet Jackson.

Finally, let us hope that in today's world of war, in an Athens surrounded by the threat of terrorism, the most defining tradition of the ancient Olympics is strong enough to survive another month.

The tradition was instituted 2,780 years ago throughout a Greek territory marked by border brawls and land battles.

It was good for the two months surrounding the ancient Olympics and was usually followed by even the most violent factions.

It sounds as good, as strong, as hopeful today as it surely sounded centuries ago.

The tradition was a truce.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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