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Chariot racing returns

2007 May 23
by Skip Sauer

Yesterday I mentioned the long tail phenomenon and niche sports in the context of Dave Winfield’s new book on baseball. The sport of the ancients – chariot racing – was not exactly what I had in mind. But in today’s online WSJ, Matt Moffett reports that a group of latter-day pioneers are plotting a comeback:

Mr. de Oliveira is part of a highly committed global community of horse and history buffs who believe that chariot racing is a sport whose time has come again, after a hiatus of a millennium or so. In the Middle East, France and England, as well as in Brazil, these modern charioteers are enduring bone-jarring bumps to revive the contests that thrilled the ancients and, more recently, launched a whole genre of Hollywood sword-and-sandal movies.

One of the men behind the international buggy boomlet, Swedish-born Stellan Lind, became obsessed with chariots after watching the famous racing scene in “Ben-Hur,” the 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston. “Chariot racing was the Formula One of the antiquities,” says Mr. Lind, who for years was a pharmaceuticals executive.

Mr. Lind saw his chance to resurrect racing several years ago when he stumbled onto a Roman hippodrome in Jerash, Jordan, that was being restored by archaeologists. He got financial backing from the Jordan Tourism Board to hold re-enactments of races and gladiator fights there. To help him design chariots that were functional as well as historically faithful, Mr. Lind tracked down a former “Ben-Hur” prop man who was keeping several of the chariots used in the film in his barn in Rome. In 2005, Mr. Lind and his company, the Roman Army and Chariot Experience, or RACE, started entertaining tourists in Jerash with Roman exhibitions.

Last September in Paris, director Robert Hossein staged five performances of a $17 million Ben-Hur re-enactment at the Stade de France, featuring hundreds of extras appearing as charioteers, gladiators and pirates. It drew close to 300,000 spectators.

Here’s a video version of Matt’s report, focused on Mr. de Oliveira’s May Day Race in rural Brazil. The crowd of 175 was a far cry from the days of the Circus Maximus in Rome, but who knows? It might catch on.

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