ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece -- The Olympics have created many
memorable matchups, perhaps none stranger than a 4th century
Armenian prince and a woman from Silicon Valley.
The two became bonded forever Wednesday when American Kristin
Heaston heaved a shot put over the tan dirt at the Ancient Olympia
stadium to become the first Olympian at the site since the games
were banned as pagan 1,611 years ago. The last recorded winner was
the boxer Varasdates, who claimed lineage from Armenian royalty.
The luck of the draw also handed the 28-year-old from Palo Alto,
Calif., another distinction: the first woman to compete for full
Olympic honors at the birthplace of the games.
That goes back past the Roman Empire that eventually outlawed
the games as Christianity took root. Back past Socrates and Plato.
Back to the first recognized Olympics in 776 B.C. when a local cook
took the running prize.
The weight of history just seemed a bit too much, too fast --
even for a 6-foot woman who has thrown the 8-pound, 13-ounce ball
nearly 61 feet. Her three throws in Ancient Olympia failed to make
the cut for the final round.
"Now that I'm done, I can take some pictures. ... I'll be able
to take it all in,'' said Heaston, whose best was 56 feet, 4
inches, well short of her personal best. "I can really experience
everything we are part of now.''
It's something that can truly wear the motto of the Athens
Games: Welcome Home.
Moving the shot put to the ancient site in southern Greece was a
tempting part of Athens' bid proposal. But it ran into
complications. Greece's powerful archaeological caretakers had to
be convinced that a sporting event would not damage the ruins or
stadium grounds, about 200 miles southwest of Athens.
Finally, a single-day shot put competition was approved. There
were conditions: no stands, permanent structures or extensive
electrical wiring for scoreboards or the media.
So it began on a clear morning with a cool breeze coming from
the forests and highlands of Arcadia.
Spectators came on foot across a bridge over the summer-dry bed
of the Alpheios River and up a curving road. The sounds were ones
connecting now with long ago: footfalls, cicadas, rustling leaves.
People found places on the grass slopes coming up from the stadium
floor. Music played from speakers. In antiquity, flutes and drums
welcomed the games.
Just before 8:15 a.m., the 39 women athletes entered for the
first round. They came through the ruins of the limestone tunnel
used for centuries by the ancient competitors. Most recently, the
path was taken by the Olympic flame just moments after it was lit
by the sun's rays in front of the Temple of Hera, the mythical wife
of mighty Zeus.
The music was a string and piano concerto from the late Greek
composer Manos Hadjidakis. An athlete from the Netherlands was
first, squinting into the low morning sun. Then came Trinidad and
Tobago and Germany. The last in line was Laura Gerraughty, a
21-year-old student at North Carolina.
She fished for words to describe coming into the stadium, but
managed only "pretty cool.'' That seemed to be just nerves
She read some Greek history in preparation for the trip. She
understood what was happening and its profound symbolism -- not just
connecting Olympians over a chasm of 16 centuries, but marking the
first steps of female athletes where the Games were born.
"It's an honor to be part of history,'' she said later.
She, too, failed to make the next round. She sat in the shade of
laurel trees and watched the men throw. Then she walked up to the
road -- past a marble pillar that contains the heart of Pierre de
Coubertin, who help revive the modern games in 1896 -- and into the
grounds of the Olympic Academy.
"I am just awed by this all,'' she said.
The shot put was not part of the ancient games, which included
boxing, wrestling, running, jumping, discus, javelin and chariot
races. There was even once a female chariot victor. There's an
asterisk, however. She was not a recognized Olympian since the
olive wreath went to the horses' owner, not the competitor.
The shot put was included in the first modern Olympiad in
Athens. There, a Greek thrower named Miltiades Gouskos was having
trouble with his technique. His American rival, Robert Garrett,
approached him during the competition and showed him a better way.
Gouskos' next throw topped Garrett's mark.
Garrett's response was congratulations, which drew surprised
cheers from the Greek crowd. Garrett later edged out Gouskos to
become the first Olympic shot put winner. It was long considered
one of the stellar moments of the first games.
This time -- for one history-making morning -- the shot put was
again the center of the Olympic universe.
"Shot putters have never felt anything like this ... to be on
such hallowed ground,'' Heaston said. "Usually we're kind of on
the back burner. This is totally different.''