As a student of ancient Greek history and mythology and a follower of the Olympics since I was a child, the site of the ancient Olympic Games has always held a fascination for me. Olympia is about five hours from Athens and a worthwhile side trip if you share these interests.
The Peloponnese is a particularly scenic part of Greece, mountainous and much greener than the area around Athens and the islands. The region surrounding Olympia is peppered with poplars, olive trees, oaks and pines, and the trees inspired the Greeks to name the center of the sanctuary the Altis, the “sacred grove” (after alsos, meaning “grove”). The Alpheus River meanders nearby.
The sanctuary sits at the base of the Kronion Hills, named after the god Cronus. The clear air is a nice contrast from that of Athens. Scenic beauty and a moderate climate were obvious factors for the ancient Greeks in choosing this site.
Olympia was not so much a town in ancient times as a site specifically designated for athletic competitions and worship of the gods. The ancient games date back to 776 B.C. and were eventually abolished in 394 A.D. – an astounding run of 1,170 years.
The games reached their height of popularity in the 4th to 6th centuries B.C., during the classical period of ancient Greece. They were performed in the nude. Women were not allowed and even threatened with a penalty of death if found at the site during the games. The Greek city-states, often enmeshed in petty squabbles and skirmishes, put a halt to these conflicts every four years during the Olympiad and competed peacefully in the ancient games.
As I entered the site of the ruins, I was overwhelmed by a sense of history. The stadium, which once seated 45,000 spectators, appears just a field not much larger than a high school track – but with an aura unlike any I had felt at an athletic or historic site.
Looking out at the 192-meter long field, I had a palpable sense of the competitions that took place here. I felt a little chill at the back of my neck, as if the ghost of one of the ancient competitors was whispering hello. It’s a particular thrill to do a little running on the ancient track. You can even see where the original starting blocks once stood.
Among the most notable ruins on the site is the temple to Zeus. The huge ivory and gold statue dedicated to the king of the gods that once stood here was named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Next to it is the ruin of the Heraeum, dedicated to Zeus’s wife Hera, where the garlands were presented to the victors of the athletic competitions. It is also here where the Olympic torch was lit. To the west are the ruins of the Palaestra, the wrestling school, and the Gymnasium, where the competitors trained for weeks before the competitions.
Two excellent museums, the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of the Olympic Games, help the visitor better navigate the logistics of the site and understand the historical context of the ruins. An artist’s rendition of how the site likely appeared in ancient times helps one time-travel while wandering amidst the ruins.