Olympia, Greece: It’s hard to describe the feeling as you stand at the original starting line of the stadium where the Olympics began in 776 BC. Greek myth credits the hero Hercules with creating the running races at Olympia to celebrate the completion of one of his twelve labors.
Of course, you’re compelled to run–or at least walk–the length of the packed dirt track. It’s an irresistible impulse. Two stone markers 192.27 meters apart indicate the start and finish lines. (That’s one Olympic stade, or about 600 Greek feet, the length of the original footrace.)
It’s a thrill to pass through the same stone archway that the best Greek athletes used to enter the stadium and to imagine the roar of the crowd. For more than a thousand years–until 393 AD–naked young men competed to become “immortal” by winning the Olympics. Winners received free food for a life and a statue to place by the temple. They also received a fresh olive wreath, that would soon wilt, as a reminder that life is temporary. Only glory lasts.
The grassy slopes around the stadium held 45,000 male spectators who brought gifts, sacrifices–and serious tourist money–to the area every four years. No women were allowed to attend the games, except the Priestess of Demeter (goddess of fertility) who was given a place of honor next to the stadium’s altar.
All free male Greek citizens were entitled to participate in the ancient Olympic Games, regardless of their social status. Every city and town had a gymnasium–the Greek word means to exercise naked–to properly educate boys and young men in mind, body, and spirit. The skills they learned were battle skills: running, wrestling, boxing, jumping, and throwing. Especially dangerous was pankration, a no-holds-barred fight, where opponents could do anything except bite, gouge out eyes, or attack genitals.
Each athlete was sponsored by his hometown. On arrival to the Olympics, he took an oath that he had trained for at least a year and would not cheat. Then he was housed, fed, and trained in special buildings for a month, as final preparation for the competition.
The Sanctuary in Olympia, Greece, was the most important site dedicated to Zeus. It was a private place for priests only…except for the five days every four years, when the games took place. For five days, men poured into town for a wild time. Just like today, vendors sold souvenirs, snacks and whatever else the guys craved. Rich men and honored guests stayed at the hotel on the holy site. Everyone else camped on the flat ground outside. With all the animal sacrifices to Zeus–especially the massive cow slaughter on the third day of the games–there was plenty of eat. Wine flowed freely. Good times for all, except the slaves who had to clean up the mess. (No toilets or outhouses back then…)
Cheating was a serious offense. Even back then, physicians were on hand to test urine…by tasting it for illegal stimulant herbs. Anyone who cheated was forced to provide a statue of himself that was placed on the walkway to the stadium. His name, father’s name, and town was included. Quitters got the same punishment; it was an honor just to compete. Spectators attending the games would spit on the statues before entering the stadium. For Greeks, dishonor was the ultimate shame. The lesson: You are always responsible for your decisions and actions.
The Olympics continued under the rule of Constantine the Great. The last games were held in 393 AD, when newly-converted-to-Christianity Theodosius I prohibited all pagan festivals. He also ordered the sanctuary to be destroyed. There would be no more games until the Modern Olympics started in 1896.
What about the other three years and eleven months? Priests tended to the Temple of Zeus, a massive six-story stone building that covers half an acre. The structure was supported by two-ton columns, six at the ends and thirteen on the sides. An enormous 40-foot statue of Zeus filled the interior. The famous sculptor and architect, Pheidias, created it from wood, then covered it with ivory and 500 pounds of gold. A pool of olive oil below the statue cast a golden light onto Zeus. The statue was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, its whereabouts are unknown.
Is Olympia still important today? Since 1936, the flame of the Modern Olympics is lit by reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror at the altar in front of the Temple of Hera and then transported by a torch to the stadium, where it begins its journey to the site of the next games.
The site had more than 70 buildings. Over time, it was buried in 25 feet of mud. It was rediscovered in 1766, but the first excavation didn’t take place until 1829. Since 1875, it’s been managed by the German Archeological Institute of Athens and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989. (Read why UNESCO is important.
Olympia, Greece, has an outstanding archeological museum with some of the original finds, as well as another museum dedicated to the Olympic Games. There’s more to see than the stadium; signs are in both Greek and English. It’s a beautiful site, worth at least half a day. Bring your running shoes…but you’ll have to leave your clothes on. Get more information here.
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