Olympian Odyssey

Legend says this is where the Olympic Games got their start

My strategy is simple. My friend and I will wake well before dawn to beat the busloads of tourists we saw clogging the streets of Olympia the previous night. We all have one destination in mind, ancient Olympia, the archaeological site of the first Olympics, considered one of the most important sanctuaries in the ancient world.

It works. We are among the first to arrive and have the entire site to ourselves, free to walk around the columns and temples of this mass of ruins. The sanctuary lies in a valley between the rivers Alpheios and Cladeos, an area that in ancient times was home to poplars, wild olives, oaks, and pines. Appropriately, the sanctuary's original name was Altis, meaning grove. Altis was renamed Olympia after Mount Olympus in Thessaly, the mythical home of the gods.

One ancient Greek myth says that the Olympian gods started the games at Olympia, with Zeus the victor over Cronos in wrestling and Apollo defeating Ares at boxing and Hermes at running.

A man named Heracles was believed to have established the first track race in the world's first stadium. Legend has it that when he became champion, he was crowned with a kotinos, a wreath made from abranch of a wild olive tree he had planted at Olympia.

Another story claims that the games were first held when five Cretan brothers brought the infant Zeus from Crete to Olympia to be raised by nymphs. The oldest organized a race among his brothers, and the winner was given a wreath of wild olive.

As the golden dawn lights the archway into the stadium, my friend says, "I can just hear the crowd cheering." We enter through a vaulted passage called the crypt, which was constructed in Roman times.

The track itself stretches about 630 feet long, a length believed to have been determined by Heracles. The surrounding banks overlooking the field are large enough to host 40,000 spectators.

It wasn't until 776 BC that the first true Olympic games - foot races - were held. Contests in the stadium later included wrestling and boxing, among other events, with athletes performing nude (the word naked is gymnos in Greek). The equestrian competitions included stallion races and four-horse chariot races, held in the Hippodrome, which once stood south of the stadium but long ago was washed away by the waters of the Alpheios river.

The Olympic Games were held every four years and, over time, expanded from one day to five days. During those periods, a "sacred truce" was initiated for the protection of the athletes and spectators, in which all hostilities among Greek city-states were suspended.

Early on, the state of Elis presided over the Olympic Games, with supervision in the hands of 10 of its citizens. These were the judges who awarded prizes to the winners. Like Heracles, the winners were crowned with a wreath made from a branch of the olive tree.

Opposite the judges' platform in the stadium is the altar of the priestess of Demeter Chamyne, the only married woman allowed to view the games. Originally only virgins were given that privilege. Other women found sneaking a peek at the competitions were supposed to be hurled from Typaion rock, though there is no record of that ever happening.

According to legend, one woman defied the rules. Kallipateira disguised herself as a trainer so she could watch her son compete. When he won, she leapt over the barrier of the trainers' area and lost her clothing, revealing her identity. But because her father, three brothers, nephew, and son were Olympic winners, the officials pardoned her.

Today, women play a large role in the lighting of the Olympic flame, which takes place before each Olympics at the altar of the Temple of Hera. This process is done through convergence of sunlight onto a metal reflector. The high priestess enters the stadium holding the lit torch, which she hands to the first runner on its journey around the world, a tradition that dates to 1936.

This year the Olympic flame will be lit March 25 and will travel to Africa and Latin America.

At the center of the sanctuary is the Temple of Zeus, which was built from 470 to 456 BC. The white marble and limestone temple was decorated with statues on the pediments and metopes. Most notable was the gold and ivory statue of Zeus, which stood more than 40 feet tall and was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

But much of the temple, as well as other buildings around the complex, were destroyed after the games were abolished by Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I in AD 393. The Temple of Zeus was burned down at the decree of Theodosius II in AD 426. The statue of Zeus was removed to Constantinople by Theodosius and later burned in a fire. Massive earthquakes of 522 and 551 further damaged the site.

The ruins were buried for a long time. In 1829, a French research team carried out an excavation, transporting their finds to the Louvre Museum in Paris. More excavations were conducted by the German Archaeological Institute about 50 years later.

In 1896, the French worked to reinstate the Olympic Games, and Baron Pierre de Coubertin chose Athens as the first host city.

Though it is hard to imagine the dismantled colonnades and pieces of buildings as a functional religious or sporting venue, the sanctuary retains a rich air of nobility. Particularly majestic are the Corinthian columns linking the Palaestra, where the athletes practiced wrestling, with the gymnasium, where runners trained during foul weather.

As tour groups begin to pour into the sanctuary, my friend and I head to the Olympia Archaeological Museum, where many of the site's original statues and columns are on display. The centerpieces of the museum flank both sides of the central gallery. Here are the pediments and metopes from the Temple of Zeus - two separate myths depicted with the 21 statues on each of the two carvings.

The most important story is depicted in the East Pediment, which was carved in the early 5th century. It shows the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos, the king of nearby Pisa. The statues represent preparations for the race, which some believe is the origin of the Olympics. The king had received a prophecy that before his daughter, Hippodameia, would marry, he would be killed by the man she was to marry. He took preventive measures by challenging his daughter's suitors to partake in a chariot race, in which the loser would be killed. Oinomaos, with the help of his winged horses, killed 13 men, but lost his own life to Pelops.

Pelops is believed to have organized the Olympic games in honor of Zeus, who is the most important figure featured in the pediment.

The museum has been undergoing renovation to extend its exhibition space and add walls that will cover the iron bars supporting the sculptures from the Temple of Zeus. There is another museum hosting a special multimedia exhibition on the history of the Olympic games.

Also in Olympia is the Historical Museum of the Olympic Games, a small, little-visited museum featuring a short history of each of the modern Olympic Games and memorabilia such as old photos, stamps, and torches from the first modern Games to the most recent ones.

With all the renovations taking place before the Olympics, it is a good idea to call ahead and make sure the site and museum are open. Telephone: 011 30 26240 or 22742, 22517, and 22529, or see www.athens2004.com.

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