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August 4, 2004

Ancient Olympic events recreated on campus


Plato would have approved of lecturer Patrick Hunt's lively Summer Quarter class on the ancient Olympics.

In boyhood, the renowned philosopher trained under a wrestling teacher who reportedly changed his pupil's name from Aristocles to Plato because he was so buff. His name is derived from "platy," ancient Greek for "broad-shouldered." Plato, like Hunt, advocated the ideal of "healthy mind, healthy body."

The classics course, which features lectures on the history of the games and hands-on reconstruction and analysis of ancient sporting events, is filled with platy-esque students. They include varsity athletes, such as 22-year-old Omer Inan, a discus thrower who will participate in the Olympic trials this week. If Inan is successful, he will represent Turkey in the 2004 Olympic Games.

"I love this class," said Inan, a doctoral student in electrical engineering. "This class is a great personification of the way the games were in Greek times. We have the integration of mind and body. We don't just talk about stuff in the classroom; we come out here and actually use physical activity ­ something we don't do in any other class."

Erin Merriman, a senior in communication and a varsity javelin thrower, said the class has helped her relate to her fellow athletes of yore. "I feel a kind of bond ­ I have something in common with these people from ancient, ancient Greece," she said. "It really validates what I've been doing. It was important for people thousands of years ago, so it's OK for it to be important to me now. It turns out we're concerned about the same things. They were actually religious about it, and sometimes I feel I am."

Antony Raubitschek, Stanford's legendary classics professor who died in 1999, created the course, Hunt said. After retiring, Raubitschek continued to lecture on the subject through the Continuing Studies Program, but he wanted Hunt to revive the course for undergraduates. "It took a while for the idea to percolate," Hunt said. "It was obvious that this would be the year to do it."

From Aug. 13-29, the Olympic Games will return to their birthplace in Greece, where they were held every four years from 776 B.C. to A.D. 395. When the spectacle was revived in 1896, the first modern Olympics symbolically took place in Athens, the host of this year's games.

The significance of taking Hunt's class this summer resonates with 33-year-old Jeffrey Hammonds, a senior in history who played baseball for the U.S. team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. "As you grow up, you know so much about our true Olympians ­ the Carl Lewises, the Mary Lou Rettons ­ but I didn't know much about the history of the Olympics," he said. "It was a chance to learn more. I could see it in its purest form."

Bridging academics and athletics

Before the Summer Quarter started, Hunt discussed the course with coaches in the Department of Athletics, who in turn publicized it to their student athletes.

"The point was not to make the class interesting only to athletes," Hunt said. "But I felt having athletes in the class would change the dynamics. Their involvement makes it so much more focused ­ they have the analytical skills from athletic experience and they're bright students. I have the training to look at it from an archaeologist's and a historian's point of view. It's a perfect blend."

Robert Weir, the head coach of men's track and field, said it is the first time during his 12 years on campus that a teacher has tried to link athletics and academics. "It's fantastic," he said. "It's the first time where participation in this class was something that athletes could relate to directly."

Weir brings a personal Olympic perspective to the course: He threw the discus for Great Britain in 1984, 1996 and 2000. "There are so many parallels between sports and academics," he said. "Through my own personal experience, sports has done wonders for me in terms of education. For some people, academics does all those things, but, for me, it happened to be sports. This class is something that brings the two together. It's great."

Recreating ancient events

On a windy afternoon in July, the class gathered on Angell Field to try Hunt's homemade reproductions of an ancient discus and javelin, and to perform the standing long jump. Students jumped with and without hand-held bricks to simulate limestone weights, known as halteres,that were used in ancient Greece.

"My classes always tend to be experiential," Hunt said. "You learn best by doing and by having multiple senses integrate the task for you. I think you can talk theoretically until you're blue in the face. When I bring artifacts to class, the students handle them. They sense how big something is ­ its mass, its weight, its volume, its heft."

Hunt's hands-on instruction has revealed that surviving pictures, texts and artifacts don't always tell the real story. For example, he said, the statue of the discus thrower by the Greek sculptor, Myron, is pleasing to the eye but that's about it. The athlete is posed bending over, with his left hand touching his right knee and his right hand, holding a discus, extended above and behind his body. "If you released the torque and tension from that position, you would throw the discus straight in the air," Hunt said. "It appears that the artist sacrificed reality for the aesthetic experience."

Hunt's experimental discus is based on an image of a pentathlete adorning a circa-525 B.C. Greek jar. When Inan tried throwing the reconstructed discus, he discovered it didn't work as well as the contemporary version. "One thing you learn in an aero-astro class is that the weight and shape of the discus plays a huge role in the way it flies," he said. "Especially on a windy day, the lighter, flatter discus of ancient times didn't fly as well as ones today."

According to Inan, surviving records confirm that finding. The longest recorded throw from the ancient Olympics is 40 meters. Today's world record is 74 meters, with Inan's personal best standing at 61.72 meters.

Merriman also discovered that modern javelins work much better than her teacher's makeshift reconstruction ­ a wooden pole sharpened to a point at one end. While Merriman's untrained classmates benefited from using an ancient technique of a thin leather thong wrapped around the pole and their fingers to help control the thrust, she found it cumbersome. "It was terrible ­ too light," she said. "[Modern] javelins are weighted; they're perfectly balanced."

While the class discovered that javelins and discuses have improved over the millennia, students jumped further using hand-held weights. Based on ancient visual descriptions, students swung the weights forward with as much force as possible on takeoff, and then swung them backwards, dropping them just before landing. For example, football player Julian Jenkins, a junior in English, jumped 9 feet 5 inches without weights and 10 feet with them. "It seems to work," Hunt said. "It's an artificial improvement."

Hunt plans to take these findings, supported by the participation of his students, to write a book reviewing the early Olympics. "I have never seen a blow-by-blow critique and analysis of the ancient events and their depictions," he said. "The pictorial depictions retain some visual accuracy in detail but, overall, it looks as if they've been subsumed to an artist's purview rather than an athlete's purview. It also looks like the artists had the athletes pose for certain events."

Matt Haryasz, a junior in sociology and a varsity basketball player, said some of the discoveries have surprised him, particularly when they contradict statements in published texts. "It's been awesome," he said. "With so many athletes in the class, it's kind of cool to see how [ancient athletes] trained compared to how we train now. This is the definition of hands on."



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,

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