If you’re a fan of the Olympic Games, a visit to the Olympic site is always a thrill. But if you really want to get the feeling of Olympics, you need to see the original Olympic site in — Olympia, Greece.
Olympia is a fairly isolated site located 10 miles from the Ionian sea in Greece’s Peloponnese region. It’s about 40 minutes from the port of Katakolon, where my ship, the Norwegian Jade, stopped during my 2013 Mediterranean cruise. It sits atop a small hill above a little tourist town, and entering the site I had a vague idea of what I was expecting: a big, open forum with a track, the remains of viewing stands, and maybe a few buildings nearby.
The reality was pretty much the opposite: ancient Olympia is a big, impressive complex filled with temples, monuments and buildings of a dozen different types. As for the track — well, don’t get your hopes up. Maybe I should have done some research before I came — but then, that would have spoiled the surprise.
According to the history books, the first Olympics were held here in in 776 B.C. as part of a peace treaty between Sparta and Elis, the local state. But the site was used as a ceremonial centre for hundreds, if not thousands of years before that, and it’s steeped in history and myth. According to one tale, this was where Zeus fought his father Cronus to seize the heavenly crown.
But the best story is the one of King Oenomaus of Pisa, who was told by an oracle that he would die by the hand of his son-in-law. So he declared that anyone wanting to marry his daughter Hippodameia would have to beat him in a chariot race at Olympia; if they failed, they would die. Thirteen suitors showed up, and all bit the dust.
Then the hero Pelops appeared. Hippodameia fell in love with him and conspired with Oenomaus’s driver to sabotage his chariot. The king was killed during the race, leaving Pelops to take the trophy, the girl, and the crown. His name still lives on in the name of the Peloponnesus region. And people still cheat at the Olympics.
But back to the present. Entering the Olympia site, you see the remains of what was obviously a busy, impressive compound filled with spectacular buildings. Rows of columns reveal where large, classical buildings once stood: the gymnasium; the Palaestra, where the wrestlers trained; the temples; the baths; the Leonidaion, a guesthouse for noble men. There are administrative buildings, treasuries where the votive offerings were kept, and the Echo Hall, where announcements were said to echo seven times.
These days the building sites are grown over with grass and moss, and strolling among them is a peaceful experience, even with tourists filling the site. But it’s clear that this was once a bustling place.
One of Olympia’s showcases was the temple of Zeus, in the centre of the complex. It once housed one of the wonders of the ancient world, a 37.5-foot statue of the god made of gold and ivory. It unfortunately disappeared in the fourth century A.D. Today, only the pedestal and a few columns remain of the temple (seen below), but its influence is still felt far and wide. With its classic proportions — 13 columns on the long sides and six on the ends — this was the model for all the Doric temples in the Greek world.
Nearby are the ruins of the Philippeion, a circular monument to King Philip II of Macedonia, who started it, and to Alexander the Great, his son, who finished it. (Alexander actually competed in the Olympics, but didn’t win.) Today only three columns remain, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision its original glory.
A little farther on, at the end of the complex, is the place most visitors come to see: the stadium itself. And that’s where most of them — including me — are pretty disappointed. Your expectations begin to rise as you walk through the Krypte, the tunnel leading to the stadium.
But once you emerge on the other side, you find the bitter truth: the storied field of Olympic competition is a piddly affair, smaller than the track at your high school, and flanked by two gentle hills unfurnished with even a few steps for spectators to sit on. No huge athletic complex. No rows of stone seats like in the classical forums.
It was here where naked athletes ran and jumped and threw the discus for a crowd of citizens and noblemen (women and slaves weren’t allowed). But looking at this modest strip of dirt, it’s hard to get to inspired, even when a few of the younger tourists run up and down the strip to say they competed at Olympia, Greece.
The original Olympics took place on and off until the fourth century A.D. During the later period the country was ruled by the Romans, who built some of their own buildings on the site but also carted off a lot of its treasures. Many, however, are still kept in a museum on the site, including famous statues such as the Hermes of Praxiteles. I’ll share some of these in a later post.
Most of the buildings in Olympia were destroyed by an earthquake in the sixth century, and the whole complex was covered over later by floods and landslides. French archaeologists started uncovering the site in 1829, and the work continues today: the rooms below were still being explored when I visited.
And thanks to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the athletic tradition that started here continues in the 21st century — though I doubt the ancient Greeks would have known what to make of bobsleds or freestyle skiing. Still, the flame they lit here in Olympia, Greece burns on.