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Olympic Gold (and Dross)

Returning to the birthplace of the Olympics, this year's Games are as much a reflection of history as they are of sport.

In the shadow of the Acropolis, one can't help harking back to the legal, theatrical, and philosophical foundation of Greek antiquity that underlies Western civilization.

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But travel southwest to ancient Olympia, where about 80 shot putters will compete at the original site of the Games, and the stadium there evokes aspects of an era best left in the past.

With grassy banks for seating and a minimum of electricity, the arena might make spectators feel they're back in 776 BC, the first recorded date of the Games. If they truly had traveled in time, though, it's unlikely they would enjoy the spectacle.

One reason: discrimination. No women were allowed, either as competitors or to cheer on the athletes. Also, the violence. Boxers, for instance, sometimes wrapped their fists with leather studded with nails and metal balls. The competition could be fought to the death.

The Frenchman who revived the games in 1896, Pierre de Coubertin, retained the ancient competitive spirit, but tempered it greatly by promoting chivalry in sports through honor, international and team friendship, and cooperation. Unlike the ancient Games, today's Olympics recognize second- and third-place winners, and women.

By the next Athens Games, let's hope that progress in sport and history will have continued - that doping, nationalism, and corruption in athletics will have dropped away, and that the need to expend record funds and effort on antiterrorism will have collapsed like the Temple of Zeus, which lies in ruins in Olympia.