Posted on Wed, Aug. 18, 2004

Penn prof is having a field day in Athens

Inquirer Staff Writer

Even in a crowd of Greeks, David Romano is holding his own these days.

The unassuming archaeologist and University of Pennsylvania professor - long an expert on the ancient Olympics - has been here for the last two months, first on a dig and now on a journalistic mission of sorts, traveling around Greece and writing about the country as it hosts the 2004 Games.

Every other day for the duration of the Games, he will be posting his experiences and impressions on a Penn-supported Web journal, accessible through the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Web site (

No matter that August was supposed to be his vacation. Romano says he jumped at the opportunity to write about the country where he studied archaeology in the 1970s, and where he has spent countless days since, teaching and exploring ancient sites.

"My blood is in this in a number of different ways - archaeologically, and in terms of athletics and competition," Romano said in an interview earlier this week. "I'm an archaeologist. I'm also a runner, and I used to be a competitive runner for many years. So this is a combination of all the things I love."

So far, Romano, 57, has touched on topics ranging from the Athens Metro system to the most recent doping scandal, which could end up implicating two of Greece's top runners.

His impression of the Metro? "It's great," Romano said. "Many of the stations have archaeological exhibits - little museums right there in the subway. And they'll probably be seen by more people than if they were in the National Museum."

His thoughts on the doping scandal? "Unfortunate," Romano said of the rumors involving the two athletes, Katerina Thanou and Kostas Kenteris.

In a bizarre tale that could rival the best of Greek dramas, the runners failed to show up for a scheduled International Olympic Committee (IOC) drug test Thursday. Later that day, they were hurt in a motorcycle accident while rushing back to the Olympic Village upon learning that they could be disqualified from the competition.

The two have been released from the hospital and are scheduled to go before the IOC today to answer questions about the circumstances surrounding their failure to appear for testing.

"The television headline was, 'Greece is frozen, waiting for news,' " Romano said. "And it's true. It's all anybody is talking about."

What people may not know, however, is that there was no drug testing in antiquity, and that there exists no evidence to date that athletes in the ancient games ever took performance-enhancing substances. So Romano writes in his Web journal entry of Aug. 13.

In the same entry, he reports that Olympic victors in ancient times routinely received cash payments from their hometowns, and that at least by the fifth century B.C. they were also rewarded with free meals every day for the rest of their lives.

The spoils of victory didn't end there. Winners got front-row seating at the theater, "and could also erect an image of themselves, usually in the form of a statue, in the sacred 'altis' in Olympia," writes Romano, who has a separate Web site ( dedicated to the story of the ancient Games.

A professor in college first inspired him to study ancient Greece and its athletes, Romano said, and it was his study of ancient athletes that eventually drew him to archaeology.

He has been in Greece on digs 23 times in the last 25 years. This summer, he's been leading a group of archaeologists from the University of Arizona and the Fifth Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities in Sparta on a mission in Arcadia, about 130 miles southwest of Athens.

Those institutions, and Penn, are collaborating on a five-year excavation and survey project at the Sanctuary of Zeus on Mount Lykaion. The site is identified in Greek mythology as the birthplace of Zeus, and includes a stadium and hippodrome where athletic contests were held.

The project, said Romano, will keep him coming back here for the next six summers.

In the meantime, the professor from Merion Station, Montgomery County, is going to try to squeeze in some fun with his work. He's been catching a few Olympic events while here with his wife and three daughters and their two friends.

"This is where the Games began," Romano said. "It's an extraordinary time to be here."

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis 215-854-2827 or

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