Olympia—Birthplace of the first Olympic Games

Story and photos by Robert Bone

OLYMPIA, Greece – Standing amid the ruins at the site of the first Olympic games, it was hard for me to imagine what the ancient Greeks would have thought of the Winter Olympics.

Blessed with the gentle Aegean weather, Greek jocks competed strictly in the nude. The snowy climes of Sochi and other winter playgrounds would certainly have challenged them in ways they never knew.

Contestants competed not for gold, silver or bronze. There were no product endorsements, and monetary compensation was strictly prohibited. The most the winners could hope for beyond the adulation of the crowd was a crown of sacred olive leaves and the especially coveted right to fight in battle alongside their ruler. If one won enough times, a statue might be erected to honor him. Women and foreigners were prohibited, both from competing in and observing the contests.

Today the scattered stone remnants of this Olympic park attract travelers who journey down the huge Peloponnesian Peninsula to Olympia. Others arrive on day shore excursions from cruise ships that anchor off nearby Katakolon. Some of the more active visitors especially like to run from one end of the stadium to the other.

"Take a picture of me crossing the finish line!" The phrase is heard often -- and in several languages.

English-speaking guides conduct one-hour tours through the ruins of Olympia, providing basic facts. Then they turn their audience loose in the nearby museum. Travelers who have enough time may to browse on their own, finding some deserted, weed-covered nook from which to contemplate the ruins and to imagine the great personages and grand events that came to pass here a millennium ago. For overnight travelers, there are several small hotels in the area.

The ruins of Phidias’ workshop in OlympiaThe wooded valley of Olympia was the symbol of all that was wholesome in ancient Greece. Its influence was so great that the Greeks based their four-year calendar on Olympiads. The very first Olympiad was held in the year we now call 776 B.C. The place was named for Mount Olympus, the 10,000-foot peak 500 miles to the north, and whose cloud-draped summit was thought to be the home of the gods. In ancient times, Olympia was not so much a town as it was a religious sanctuary dedicated to Zeus, the king of the gods.

The largest structure in the complex was the Temple of Zeus. It contained a chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Zeus -- still named as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The heroic figure was created by Phidias, the same talented sculptor who turned out the statue of Diana that stood in the Parthenon in Athens. The ruins of Phidias' workshop (which later became a Byzantine church) may be explored there today.

Visitors view statue fragments in the museum at Olympia.The second large building was the Temple of Hera, known as Zeus' jealous wife. The ruins of this temple play a part in modern-day Olympics, since it is on Hera's altar that the Olympic torch is lit before it is carried by foot, airplane or laser beam to the sites of the modern games, summer or winter.

There are ruins of several more structures of interest to scholars. But one of the more intriguing sights is the stadium. There were never any seats -- only grassy artificial banks, which now have been restored, along with the original track.

The start and finish blocks are still embedded in the ground, where they were set nearly 3,000 years ago.

The original Olympic event was simply a 200-yard dash. The length of the track is one "stade," or 600 feet. Legend has it that it was laid out by Hercules, who is considered the founder of the ancient games. Whether by Hercules or not, whoever did the job may have had larger feet than current averages. The distance measures 631 American feet, or just over 230 yards.

An American tourist (Christina Bone) rests on some lions' heads while contemplating the ruins of Olympia.The Olympics were established as a break in a life of near-constant warfare. Once every four years, in July, fighting between the warring Greek states ceased, and the athletes completed a month of training at the facilities in Olympia. The games usually lasted five days.

Besides the running of the stade, events included boxing, wrestling and the pancratium, a tough sport that consisted of a combination of boxing and wrestling. There was also an impressive race bearing the somewhat ironic name of the hoplite, in which he athletes competed while wearing heavy bronze armor.

In 689 B.C., equestrian competitions were established, with several kinds of horse and chariot races. Four centuries later, contests for heralds and trumpeters were introduced.

Olympia guide giving a tour through the ruins of Olympia.The conquest of Greece by Rome in 146 B.C. foreshadowed the end of the traditional Olympic games, even though they continued in some form a few centuries longer. Romans joined the Greeks in competition, and eventually the events were also opened up to foreigners.

The Romans introduced many contests, including some so violent they resulted in the death of participants. In 394 A.D., the corruption of the games led the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I to abolish the Olympics, capping an imposing run of nearly 12 centuries. The sanctuary at Olympus was ordered destroyed. Later, earthquakes completed the job, and the site was virtually forgotten by the Middle Ages. Excavations by German archeologists began in the 19th century, and this work continues today.

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