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Women make history at birthplace of Olympics

Kristin Heaston made history as she became the first woman to compete at the site that gave birth to the Olympics 2,780 years ago.
PTI | By Rob Gloster (AP), Ancient Olympia
PUBLISHED ON AUG 18, 2004 01:32 PM IST

Kristin Heaston made history even before the shot put left her hand on Wednesday, becoming the first woman to compete at this hallowed site that gave birth to the Olympics 2,780 years ago.

With thousands of spectators watching from a grassy knoll, some waving flags and others napping on blankets in the morning sun, Heaston was the first competitor in the qualifying round. Women were not allowed to perform in the ancient Olympics.

The shot put is being held at this former religious sanctuary, about 320 kilometres southwest of Athens, two days before the rest of the athletics competition begins on Friday at the Olympic stadium back in the nation's capital.

Heaston, who failed to advance to the final on Wednesday, said she might have been focussed too much on the unique setting and not on her performance.

"It was awesome, I just wish I had done better," said Heaston, a strength coach at Stanford University. "As you can see, I probably needed to think about what I was doing more in the ring than to think about the history.

"It's a bit overwhelming. I was just trying to think of it as a backyard track meet."

The women's preliminaries were the first competition at the site since 393 AD, when the ancient Olympics were abolished by the Roman emperor Theodosius as a pagan practice. The first Olympics were held here in 776 BC.

Twelve women advanced to the final. The best throw of the morning was 19.43 metres by Irina Korzhanenko of Russia. The men's prelims began later in the morning. One male competitor marched into the stadium, through an arch that competitors passed through millenia ago, wearing a laurel wreath on his head. An announcer reminded spectators they were sitting in the same spots from which the ancient Greeks watched their athletic heroes nearly 28 centuries ago and encouraged the fans before the start of competition to "sit in silence and feel the mystical powers of this sacred place."

And if they closed their eyes and ears for a moment _ ignoring the dozens of TV cameras, incessantly ringing cell phones and canned music during breaks _ the spectators easily could imagine the priestess of Hera sitting on her stone throne that provided shade for a few lucky fans on Wednesday.

There were some nice touches at the site, a large dirt oval not far from centuries-old columns and ruins. The scoreboards were operated by hand. Writers sat cross-legged on the grass, working without electricity or phone lines. Competitors' screams and grunts filled the morning air.

Men competed in the nude at the ancient games, which did not include the shot put but did have similar tests of strength. The men wore clothes this time around.

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