A Visit to Ancient Olympia
A January tour of Greece included an opportunity to get away from the crowds, hectic tourist mainstays and urban landscape of Athens, to venture on the Peloponnesian Peninsula and visit many places, including Mycenae, Nafplion, Epidaurus, and one of the many highlights of the trip – ancient Olympia.
However, before we go back in time to almost 3,000 years ago, let’s back this up a bit for some recent history. Watching the Baltimore Ravens’ nail-biting, heart-stopping defeat of the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, to win Super Bowl XLVII, brought back many great memories of years of watching athletic contests, especially Baltimore team sports.
For the drama of athletics in other great theatres, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics. My wife and I went to the games primarily for the equestrian events.
So, imagine my delight when the opportunity came in January to visit the ancient origins of all of today’s global sporting events, ancient Olympia.
Modern-day Olympia, located on the coast of Greece’s western Peloponnesian Peninsula, serves as a host to the hallowed ground where the ancient games began almost 3,000 years ago.
This part of Greece is dotted with clusters of small towns, picturesque bays, and sandy beaches that invoke a leisurely version of living far away from the frenzied pace of Athens.
Known as the Peloponnese, the large land mass is barely connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of land at Corinth, just east of Athens and Piraeus, and south of the Sardonic Gulf and the Corinthian Gulf.
It is an area where legends and myths were born and the ancient gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, culture, government, and religion have lived for thousands upon thousands of years.
We arrived in Olympia after dark, late in the evening, after traveling for several hours through the mountainous center of the peninsula on a road that danced precariously with hilltop clouds, steep cliffs, rockslides, and narrow bridges.
It was a white knuckle ride through rain, sleet, wind, lightning, and snowstorms. Upon arrival, we all said a quick prayer to our modern-day gods. If it were not for the fact that it was late and we were cold, tired, and hungry, we would have conducted a collective impromptu kiss-the-ground ceremony in honor of our ‘Jetti’-bus driver.
The area surrounding Olympia is strewn with the ruins of ancient cities and temples. And in the valley where the Alfios and Kladoes rivers converge, so also does history collide with the soap opera lives of the gods.
This is where human athleticism was worshiped and the gods played, according to a May 1982 publication by the Greek National Tourist Organization. Here – “rivers fell in love with nymphs, gods marrying nymphs…”
The modern Olympics are very different from the ancient Greek games that began in 776 BC and brought the Greek world together to honor one deity, Zeus, through sports, sacrifices, and hymns in a five-day festival.
The BBC reported, in a July 24, 2012, article by Chris Lisee, that “The Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 after excavations at Olympia renewed public interest in the athletics and pageantry of the Olympics.”
The ancient games had much fewer events than the modern games. As a matter of fact, the first 13 Olympics only had one event. That event was the running of a foot race from one end of the stadium to the other, a distance just short of 700 feet.
Although there were athletic festivals in other parts of ancient Greece, the “Olympic” games were only held at Olympia and they were held at the same place for almost 1,200 years. The modern games are held every four years in different places throughout the world.
The ancient Greeks worshipped 12 main gods, whom they believed played a role in their everyday lives, including all family, social, civic matters, and all aspects of government. The ancient athletic festivals held at Olympia were also a highly religious event for the Greeks, who dedicated the events in honor of Zeus.
According to Paul Cartledge, “The Greek religious festivals,” which may be found in a collection of essays, “Greek Religion and Society,” festivals, including athletic competitions, “were the single most important feature of classical Greek religion in its public aspect…”
The athletic competition festivals held at Olympia are “the ultimate source of an idea that is still potent in our contemporary world… and yet the context in which those ideas were originally generated (is) fundamentally different from those of the modern, revived Olympics…”
The BBC article by Chris Lisee observed: “Athletes at the ancient Olympics believed their training honored the gods, and victory was a sign of favor from a deity. As contests like wrestling, boxing, and horseracing were added to the Olympic roster, they supplemented devotional sacrifices, hymns, and ceremonies.
“The idea was that you were training to please Zeus. But part of the festival would be to visit the temple, visit the cult statues, making offerings, celebrating and seeing your family,” said David Gilman Romano, a professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona.
There are at least three important parts to an Olympia visit: visiting the ancient Olympia archaeological site and the Archaeological Museum.
The third part occurs when you visit the ancient stadium and have visions of Ray Lewis and the Ravens embarking upon a 3,000-year legacy. Hopefully that all began on February 3 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.