Today we took a trip way back in time to visit the ancient ruins of the legendary city of Olympia, the classical birthplace of the Olympic Games. The well-preserved remains of temples, massive columns, the gymnasium, fountains, hotels, and the stadium all evoke the glory of the early games. It is unclear who came up with the idea of the games initially, but they were definitely dedicated to Zeus, King of the Gods of Mt. Olympus.
One likely theory is that a regional king, frustrated with the constant wars among the kingdoms, went to Delphi to ask Apollo how to end the wars. Apollo recommended starting athletic competitions between the kingdoms during which there would be a Sacred Truce to which all would commit. This truce would be in honor of Zeus. Although it is guesstimated that this might have occurred as early as the 10th century BC, the first written record of the games is 776 BC. After this, every four summers the people of Olympia would organize the games and athletes, trainers, and spectators would make the journey. There was a grand procession to mark the beginning of the games, and sacred fires were kept burning. The wars were suspended during the games, which increased over the years from one event to fifteen and from one day to five. The early athletes were all men (women started their own games later) and the winners would receive a wreath of olive branches. Once the games ended, the parties started! This went on until 394 AD when the games were suspended. By then most Greeks had become Christians and had stopped worshipping Zeus. We were surprised to learn that the marathon was not part of the original Olympic games…but that’s another story!
Over the years, the Olympic venues fell to ruin through earthquakes, wars, mudslides, etc. and the once imposing structures were buried and forgotten. It wasn’t until the 19th century when a team of German archaeologists found some Olympic remains that interest in the games was revived. New facilities were built and the “new” games were held in Athens on April 5-15, 1896, then again in 2004. The tradition of an Olympic fire was reintroduced during the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. And the first Olympic torch relay was at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The ancient site has been undergoing extensive archaeological discovery and restoration for decades. We actually saw part of the excavation that’s taking place today.
Waking among the ruins was an awe-inspiring experience. We’re happy to share some of our favorite images here in the hope that they take you back to the early days of this amazing place!
Today, several visitors were inspired to test their skills in the stadium, with varying degrees of success.
I mentioned that the Marathon wasn’t originally part of the Olympics, but how did it start? It’s actually a story of war and love with a happy ending. Marathon was a battlefield 26 miles from Athens where the Athenians confronted the Persians in 490 BC. When the Athenians prevailed, a soldier ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory. A Frenchman learned of this story, and in 1896 organized athletes from 13 countries to run the marathon as an Olympic event. A young man named Spiros was hired to carry water for the athletes. Spiros loved a young woman named Helen. Her father said he couldn’t marry Helen unless he did something important. Spiros, not an athlete himself, covered the 26 miles in 2 hours, 59 minutes, and 58 seconds, winning the marathon. He ended up marrying Helen. Now every year in November, over 16,000 athletes run the Athens Marathon.
Our wonderful guide Sophia regaled us with these and other stories and legends of the Olympics during our time together. Afterwards, we spent a little time in the city of Olympia which grew up to support the tourism created by the discovery of the Olympic treasures.