In antiquity, every 4 years during the Olympic Games, so many people thronged here that it was said by the time the Games began, not even one more spectator could have wedged himself into the stadium.
Olympia's setting is magical. Pine trees shade the small valley, dominated by the conical Hill of Kronos that lies between the Alfios and Kladeos rivers. In July 2000, archaeologists excavating beside the Kladeos discovered a Mycenaean tholos tomb with more than 100 amphorae, and they expect to find more tombs as excavations continue. The discovery was a reminder of how much is yet to be discovered here.
The handsome temples and the famous stadium that you've come to Olympia to see are not immediately apparent as you enter the site. To the left are the low walls that are all that remain of the Roman baths, where athletes and spectators could enjoy hot and cold plunges. The considerably more impressive remains with the slender columns on your right mark the gymnasium and palestra, where athletes practiced their footracing and boxing skills. The gymnasium had a roofed track, twice the length of the stadium, where athletes could practice in bad weather. Still ahead on the right are the meager remains of a number of structures, including a swimming pool and the large square Leonidaion, which served as a hotel for visiting dignitaries until a Roman governor decided it would do nicely as his villa.
The religious sanctuary was, and is, dominated by two temples: the good-size Temple of Hera and the massive Temple of Zeus. The Temple of Hera, with its three standing columns, is the older of the two, built around 600 B.C. If you look closely, you'll see that the temple's column capitals and drums are not uniform. That's because this temple was originally built with wooden columns, and as each column decayed, it was replaced; inevitably, the new columns had variations. The Hermes of Praxiteles was found here, buried under the mud that covered Olympia for so long due to the repeated flooding of the rivers.
The Temple of Zeus once had 34 stocky Doric columns; one was reerected in honor of the 2004 Olympic Games. Built around 456 B.C, the entire temple -- so austere and gray today -- was anything but austere in antiquity. Gold, red, and blue paint decorated it, and inside stood the enormous gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus, seated on an ivory-and-ebony throne. The statue was so ornate that it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World -- and so large that people joked that if Zeus stood up, his head would go through the temple's roof. In fact, the antiquarian Philo of Byzantium suggested that Zeus had created elephants simply so that the sculptor Phidias would have the ivory with which to make the statue of Zeus.
Not only do we know that Phidias made the 13m-high (43-ft.) statue, we know where he made it: The Workshop of Phidias was on the site of the well-preserved brick building clearly visible west of the temple, just outside the sanctuary. How do we know that this was Phidias's workshop? Because a cup with "I belong to Phidias" written on it and artists' tools were found here -- and are now on display in the Archaeological Museum.
Between the temples of Zeus and Hera, you can make out the low foundations of a round building; the three standing columns and their stylobate (base) were restored in honor of the 2004 Olympics. This is all that remains of the shrine that Philip of Macedon, never modest, built here after conquering Greece in 338 B.C.
Beyond the two temples, built up against the Hill of Kronos itself, are the curved remains of a once-elegant Roman fountain and the foundations of 11 treasuries where Greek cities stored votive offerings and money. In front of the treasuries are the low bases of a series of bronze statues of Zeus, dedicated not by victorious athletes but by those caught cheating in the stadium. These statues would have been the last things that competitors saw before they ran through the vaulted tunnel into the stadium.
Ancient tradition clearly shows that the Olympic Games began here, but it is less clear why they were held every 4 years. According to one legend, Herakles (Hercules) initiated the Games to celebrate the completion of his 12 labors. With the fetid Augean stables clean, Herakles paced off the stadium and then ran its entire length of 192m (600 ft.) without having to take a single breath.