DISCOVERY CHANNEL Shows study ancient Olympics
The grave of the Athlete of Taranto was found at a Greek outpost in Italy.
By JUDITH S. GILLIES
When the 2004 Olympic Games begin this week, they will have more than 2,500 years of history behind them -- and two hourlong documentaries from the Discovery Channel take viewers back to the start.
"The First Olympian" uses modern science to re-create the life of an ancient Olympian whose grave was discovered in 1959. "The Seven Wonders of Ancient Greece" looks at the great accomplishments of Greek society, including the early years of the Games.
"First Olympian" focuses on a specific man -- the Athlete of Taranto -- whose grave was found in southern Italy, where a Greek outpost stood about 2,500 years ago. He became a direct link to a lost world.
"It's a very personal story that becomes humanized," said Judy Plavnick, executive producer of "First Olympian," which was co-produced by the BBC.
"It's not just about the bones that they found in 1959, but it's a re-creation that gives insight into how they lived, what they ate, his whole lifestyle, not just the sports he played."
Archaeologists studied intricate jars found in the Athlete of Taranto's grave and pieced together some aspects of his life, while forensic scientists examined his bones and determined the state of his health.
Then, using casts of the athlete's bones, bio-mechanics experts reconstructed the details of how the Athlete of Taranto might have looked.
"He had broad shoulders, powerful arms, a strong back, explosive legs and classic good looks," the documentary says.
Anton Powell, director of the University of Wales Institute of the Classics, worked on another Discovery documentary, "Seven Wonders," which spotlights accomplishments of Ancient Greece.
"It's a taste of the physical achievements of the Greeks," Powell said, and the program gives a broad sense of the culture from which the Games have evolved.
In addition to the Olympics, the program looks at mythology and fact about the Palace of Knossos, the Oracle at Delphi, the Theater of Epidaurus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the lost city of Atlantis and the Parthenon.
"Seven Wonders" shows the early Games as warlike competitions that resulted in an incredible spectacle with only one victor. The skills of war inspired many events. Discus throwing was based on throwing stones, one of the most primitive kinds of warfare.