Filming history: a French production team takes over Ancient Olympia

How do you link this year’s Olympics with the Games of antiquity, on film, without making a hash, joke, or commercial of the whole thing? One answer – by painstakingly recreating the ancient Games for broadcast during the final runup to August 13 – has been under way the past two weeks in Olympia, that blessed spot of earth a few hours west of Athens. This summer it will appear as a lengthy documentary, brought to life by a clutch of enterprising French filmmakers, an open-minded small-town mayor, and some young athletes from around Europe who were willing to forgo mobile phones, Play Station and websurfing for a genuine taste of life, and competition, set in the fourth century BC. I got a chance to glimpse it all unfolding right on site this week. Even if it meant being an unsuspecting extra on a film set, a cog in the wheel of television, and a shivering observer wearing only a rough tunic to ward off the chilly wind, it was still worth it to watch the huge, coordinated effort under way, bringing a unique vision to life. A little background A TV production called «The Champions of Olympia,» combining documentary with live sport, suggests more excitement than fidelity to fact. I was dubious in the extreme beforehand, not least as one of the more boring days of my life was spent as a would-be extra on one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. This was different, in every way. Gedeon Programmes, an independent French production team headed by Executive Producer Stephane Milliere, has teamed up with Arte channel – a non-commercial, arts- and news-oriented, French-German joint channel started up 12 years ago – to co-produce a series of documentaries on the ancient Games. The whole thing is held together by the energetic producer, Carole Solive. The aim was to create a multi-hour «package» of documentaries on antiquity, including a 10-part series of 26-minute shows («The Champions» series) and a 100-minute fictional documentary on «The Ancient Olympics.» The whole package, conceived late last year, will wrap soon and be delivered in July. That’s fast. Infinite pains have been taken to reconstruct antiquity believably. Young athletes from France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Greece were recruited to simulate ancient competitions. The teams trained on weekends, then came to Olympia two weeks ago for a further 10 days of collective, on-site training. Each team had a trainer and even an archaeologist. The athletes lived in the countryside, adjacent to a carefully reconstructed palaestra (ancient training area). The re-creations, as one visitor put it, are «realistic but not real.» The athletes took ancient names, ate food available only in antiquity (meat, crushed grain, rough salad, but no rice, potatoes or sweets except raw honey – and no coffee), had no soap or shampoo, and «brushed» their teeth with a wooden stick. The few modern intrusions, like piped-in water or natural gas, were discreet. The bedraggled yet very fit participants can’t have looked too different from their counterparts of antiquity. They competed in loincloths and in bare feet – one of the few compromises made, as more bashful modern audiences might freak out at the sight of nude male athletes. Competing as old The three days of actual competitions (seven in all) took place this week. They included running, wrestling, the pentathlon (which had five events including jumping, javelin, and discus), and the «race in armor.» Apparently this marks the first time a television production has won permission to film in Olympia’s stadium unobstructed, during two half-days on Wednesday and Thursday and a full day today. Two other events were also recorded, although in different ways. Chariot races were filmed in Morocco, where better horses could be found, while the pankrateion, a rough sport linking boxing and wrestling, wisely relied on actors. In the «palaestra,» two Italian actor/athletes were poring over images of pankrateion athletes and bubbling about something called the Egyptian Press. The first race, the single-length stadion, was filmed on Wednesday, with megaphone-wielding directors bellowing out instructions to the few hundred (if that) good-natured spectators. And the winner was… well, I can’t say; you’ll have to watch yourselves. After that came wrestling, as the 12 competitors first drew lots to pair off for the first round and then went at it, two by two, in a sandy pit in front of the judges’ stand. Will to win was definitely there. The burly athletes looked quite a sight afterward, covered in oil, sand, and, in at least one case, blood. Two of the runners were suffering from friction-burned feet. Mixed film The production is very much a French initiative. Call it de Coubertin’s revenge: The baron supposedly cooked up the idea for the modern Games in reaction to the Germans’ winning the right to excavate Ancient Olympia. His countrymen ran this show, while the French Embassy, led by Ambassador Bruno Delaye, backed the entire effort in that gallant Gallic way of supporting the arts. The ambassador was good-naturedly on site all Wednesday, wrapped in cloth like the rest of us. The German trainer was hurdler Harald Schmidt, still a celebrity two decades after winning the second of his Olympic bronze medals. He cut a rather fine figure in flowing red robe and staff. The Italian trainer was also a former Olympian. The archaeological advisers were distinguished in their fields, with the one from Italy, a young academic called Andrea Branchi, insisting that he learned as much from the athletes as he taught them – the rules were few, and derived from how the athletes responded to the strange old ways. The Greek team was a bit of a mystery. A minute with the athletes, relaxing in their tent after lunch, showed they were more than happy to be taking part. Their supporting cast was another story. Whereas television crews tailed the other contingents and followed their progress during the 10-day training, Greek TV was nowhere to be seen. The team’s advising crew was a spotty presence as well. While this liberated the Greek athletes in one sense – they could move around and train without cameras in their faces – it surely must have left them feeling left out compared with their fellow-competitors. ERT will show the series in August, presumably (they’ve bought the rights), but only sent their cameras to film the first day of actual competitions. Thus Greek viewers will miss the fascinating story of their young athletes acclimatizing themselves to ancient-like conditions. A reflection of the 2004 effort, perhaps? Filming on the ancient site was an adventure in itself, as the producers got permission only at the last minute after being held up by (what else?) red tape. A crucial backer from the beginning was the mayor of Ancient Olympia, Ioannis Skoularikis, a former minister who gave a gracious dinner talk extolling the effort. Local officials at Olympia care more about 2,500 years of history than two weeks of Games in 2004, so if they sign on to something of this nature they know what they are doing. It can’t have hurt to have an illustrious personality, and the French Embassy, to help grease the wheels of the Greek bureaucracy a little. Is this, as the sole Greek journalist along speculated, merely another reality show, or a compromised version of antiquity for the masses? It was very different from a show like «The Farm,» which shows urbanites thrust into an unfamiliar environment. In this case it was genuine athletes – one of whom, apparently, has made his national Olympic team – thrust back into old ways. The whole exercise had at least some pedagogic as well as commercial interest. It was fascinating to watch. The production crew shouldered plenty of risk. Young athletes, not actors, were the main protagonists; they were filming in a brand-new environment, with archaeological restrictions galore; they had but a few days in which to do it; races had to be done in one take only. And the ending wasn’t known beforehand. You have to tip your hat to their willingness to throw caution, and a 3-million-euro budget, to the wind in trying to realize an unusual vision. We’ll see how it pans out this summer.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.