Illustrious Olympia, Then and Now

By Chris Deliso

2004 (Travel Intelligence)

In 2004, Greece hosted the Olympics for the first time since the modern Games started in 1896. Before that, it had been only 1,503 years since the previous ones, in 393 A.D. The year after, a pious Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I banned the Games, out of a disdain for their pagan roots. Then, 32 years later, his successor Theodosius II ordered Christian mobs to destroy Olympia’s priceless temples and halls. What survived was buried by later earthquakes and flooding, swallowed up by rivers and the Peloponnesian earth. The ancient site of the Games thus remained a hidden secret of Antiquity until the mid-19th century, when French and German archaeologists began excavating the ruins.

The Olympics: a Bit of History

Olympia, nestled along a sacred river in the western Peloponnesian region of Elia, was a place of religious worship from at least 5,000 years ago. First it hosted the sanctuary of Gaea (the Earth-goddess), then that of her son, Kronos. When he was overthrown by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, worship shifted to him. While some ancient historians believed that Zeus started the Olympics, others argued for various local kings, or the robustly athletic hero Hercules, or even for the legendary Pelops.

The ‘historical’ Olympics, however, were started by Iphitos, King of Elis. In 776 B.C., with Greece wracked by civil wars and plague, a despairing Iphitos begged the Delphic oracle for a solution. He received this thunderous reply: “Iphitos and the Elians must revive the Olympic Games!”

To do this, a ‘Sacred Truce’ was first concluded between the Greek city-states, which ordained a universal peace while the Games were going on. It also ordered that Olympic contestants and spectators be allowed safe travel.

Owing to Olympia’s roots as a vital spiritual center of the ancient Greek world, the original games were primarily a religious festival (unlike today, when it might be argued that the Olympics are primarily a marketing festival). For the up to 40,000 spectators who came from all parts of the Greek world, attendance was a form of religious pilgrimage.

From the beginning, the Olympics were also characterized by several definitive traits of the ancient Greeks: reverence for the law, exaltation of the body, love of virtue and an almost manic desire for glory.

For centuries after 776 B.C., the Sacred Truce was honored. In the rare cases of a violation, penalties were steep. Every contest was strictly regulated by the 10 judges (Hellanodikai), who were clad in magisterial purple robes and who guaranteed the honest and honorable conduct of the competitors. Winners received not money but olive-branch wreaths, taken from a sacred tree that, according to myth, Hercules himself had planted.

Only Greek freemen, not slaves, barbarians and women, could compete. The winners returned to joyful, wild celebrations in their home cities. Sometimes, part of the city walls were even dismantled before the hero’s grand entrance: with athletes like these, it was believed, these cities didn’t need defenses.

Great competitors such as runner Hermogenes of Xanthos and wrestler Hipposthenes of Sparta became legend. It was said that six-time wrestling champion Milon of Croton (Southern Italy) could bend bronze coins with his fingers And Leonidas of Rhodes, champion in running for 16 full years, was regarded as a god.

The Olympics began as a one-day event, the only initial contest being the stade running race (a sprint of 192.25 meters). Over the years, the Games grew to five days, including other events such as chariot racing, the pentathlon, wrestling and boxing, the last of which sometimes saw memorable acts of violence, such as eye-gouging and even stomach gutting.

As the festival grew bigger, it also featured business transactions and musical and dramatic performances. The great historian Herodotus recited his works in Olympia; philosophers like Plato and Aristotle would also attend. After the Romans conquered Greece, however, the contest became cheapened by gaudy pomp and events of dubious athletic merit. The Olympics reached its nadir in 67 A.D., when the megalomaniacal Emperor Nero entered the chariot race with 10 horses, decreeing that other competitors could have no more than four. Although he crashed and fell, Nero was still declared the victor.

Olympia Today

Modern Olympia stands in the shadow of the ruins, meaning that they’re easily accessible by foot. Yet the area covered by the site is so large that traversing this sprawling terrain in the torrential heat of summer can seem almost an Olympic event in itself. It certainly does increase one’s respects for the ability of those ancient contestants sweltering away for Grecian glory.

Making the effort is well worth it, however. Even though the site remains largely an unruly, cluttered collection of naked columns, toppled pillars, and crumbling shrines, with a little research and some imagination it’s possible to see the spectators straining for a glimpse at the wrestlers in the dirt, or the winners’ wreaths laid out in honor in the temple of Hera, or even the legendary sculptor Pheidias, putting the finishing touches on his gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In the nearby museum, archaeologists’ renditions of the probable look of the place illustrate just how remarkable ancient Olympia was.

The site is full of little surprises, like ancient mosaic floors, crouching in the shade of pine and olive trees, or an abandoned open-air swimming pool, or the high rows of stairs leading nowhere. And, above everything, the long green field where races and other contests were once held.

Despite its famous past, modern Olympia is little more than a village. Tourists flock to see the archaeological site and ancient theater, and then disappear; set away from the sea, in the heat of pine forests, Olympia seldom fails to entice visitors for more than a couple of days, which is a shame. The modern town, with its outdoor cafés and restaurants in the shade of broad-leaved plane trees, under which camped the town’s tourists of old, does have a certain charm (as well as banks and all the necessary amenities). Indeed, there were no indoor hotels for visitors to the ancient Olympics; fans had to rough it, sleeping under the stars to the hypnotic chirping of three-inch long crickets that occasionally wind up in one’s hair to this day.

For entertainment, Olympia features a string of little cafés and the hilltop Zorba’s Bar, situated in the darkness above a winding road and a towering set of stone stairs at the far end of the village. Frequented mostly by local Greeks, Zorba’s boasts great views of the surrounding area from its outdoor garden patio, and a soft-lit interior with pillowed benches.

Another undiscovered secret of the Olympia area is its wooded surroundings so revered by the ancients. What is to us simply beautiful nature was a source of magic and inspiration to the ancient Greeks, whose religion was pervaded by anthropomorphism, sacrifice and mystery.

The “sacred Alph” of Coleridge is also found here; the River Alphios, which cuts through Olympia’s forests and canyons, was simultaneously god, man and river to the ancient Greeks. Olympic pilgrims doubtless once lay on the god’s banks, recounting the many grand legends about him and his sad stories of unrequited love. In one, Alphios grows infatuated with Arethoussa, a beautiful river-nymph; he chases her all the way across the waters to Sicily, where she transforms herself into a spring at Ortygia in order to escape. And the nymph Daphne (meaning “laurel” in Greek) changed herself into a laurel tree to escape the overtures of Apollo. Olympia’s woodlands are filled with such trees, as the waters are with reeds. Yet another story recounts how the nymph Syrinx turned herself into a reed in the River Alphios, when the goat-legged Pan tried to win her affection. The smitten Pan cut the reed and created the legendary pan-flute (or syrinx in ancient Greek) from it. It is clear that for the ancients, religion and the natural world were eternally intertwined.

Adventurous travelers today can relive the exertions of the Olympic athletes and the riverside adventures of the gods by rafting and trekking through the River Alphios and its gorges (Neda, Erymathos, Milaonas and Tritonas), hiking and mountain biking through Olympia’s forests, or even getting a synoptic view by paragliding over the whole area.