A Conversation with Neil Faulkner, author of “A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics”, July 26, 2012
With the 2012 London Games opening tomorrow my mind drifts to memories of events and athletes I remember from the past. For some reason my earliest memories are of Decathletes: Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias. I have vague memories of Wilma Rudolph and a young, brash and beautiful boxer named Cassius Clay. I remember Munich, 1972, and Billy Mills, eight years earlier. Jim Ryun one of the great milers to ever race; who tried three time to win Olympic gold but never succeeded. I remember African marathoner, Abebe Bikila’s final surge to victory after running barefoot through the streets of Rome. The black gloved fist up, head down, salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, 1968. The same Olympics where Bob Beamon jumped and sailed further then any man ever had by nearly two feet. An accomplishment everyone felt sure, because it was so anomalous, would never be broken. Of course it was, but it took 23 years to do it.
So many memories. Comăneci’s perfect 10 and Mary Lou Retton’s bounce and burst of power and that killer smile. Then, in 1972, there was that basketball game between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. I remember watching it thinking the U.S. had won then dashing out the door so I could go see the crazy new Kubrick film: A Clockwork Orange; only to return home a few hours later to find out the Americans hadn’t won, the Russians had.
So many memories and mine only reach back to 1956 or so. But what if you could go back in time? What Olympic games would you visit? 1936? The Berlin Olympic Games when Hitler used them as a stage to show the watching world that the blond, blue-eyed German athletes were far superior and so had every right to rule the world. And it would have happened if it hadn’t been for one particularly gifted and determined black athlete from America named Jesse Owens. Owens soundly beat Hitler’s blond horde on the cinder track and in the process utterly destroyed the myth of Arian superiority.
Or would you choose 1896 and to go back to the beginning of the modern games as envisioned by Baron Pierre de Coubertin? Or would you go back even further—say 2,400 years ago to around 388 BC—to the very pinnacle of the Games in Ancient Greece?
We might find traveling back 76 years to 1936 disconcerting and back to 1896 even more so. But to go back 2,400 years would be utterly mind boggling—so if you find you have the opportunity to do it you’d be wise to arm yourself with Neil Faulkner’s indispensable: A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics. Why “indispensable” you ask. That’s easy: First, what if your time machine missed its mark—not in time but in geography—setting you down in Athens, or worse—Sicily? Would you have the vaguest notion of how to get to the Games? It’s all there in Neil Faulkner’s book.
What I particularly like about the book is that it doesn’t give you the omniscient historian’s high falutin, bird’s eye view of the Games—instead you’re down on the ground, mixing it up with all the other visitors. You’re rubbing shoulders with all the those folks who haven’t bathed in a week—NO bathing facilities at the Games of 388. Neil puts you right on the grounds at Olympia where human waste and garbage piles up higher and higher and the smell and the infestation of flies and mosquitos grows increasingly intolerable day by day and hour by hour.
The book is educational while being entertaining at the same time. I laughed out loud any number of times while reading it.