All in a Day’s Work
Ancient tradition clearly shows that the Olympic Games began here, but it is less clear why they were held every 4 years. Legend tells us that Hercules, assigned 12 heroic labors for slaying his children, rerouted the Alpheios River to clean out the foul stables of King Augeas. Then he relaxed by mapping out the Olympia stadium with his toe and running its length—192m (630 ft.)—without taking a breath, just to work off steam. In so doing, he established the city and the games.
A Look at the Past
There's really no modern equivalent for ancient Olympia, which was both a religious sanctuary and an athletic complex where the Games took place every 4 years from 776 B.C. to A.D. 393. Thereafter, the sanctuary slipped into oblivion, and buildings were toppled by earthquakes and flooded by the Alfios and Kladeos rivers. When the English antiquarian Richard Chandler rediscovered the site in 1766, most of Olympia lay under 3m (10 ft.) of mud and silt. The Germans began to excavate here in 1852 and are still at it today.
Reports of the rediscovery of Olympia prompted the French Baron de Coubertin to work for the reestablishment of the Olympic Games in 1896. The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, and since then the Olympic torch has always been lit here. Athens hosted the 2004 Olympics, with the shot put finals taking place in Olympia's ancient stadium.
The Ancient Olympic Games
For the ancients, the Olympic Games were the greatest show on earth, staged every 4 years in honor of Zeus, king of the gods. For nearly 12 centuries, they drew athletes from as far as the shores of the Black Sea. Behind them followed prostitutes, pushy vendors, orators, and tens of thousands of spectators, including diehard fans such as Plato and the tyrant Dionysus of Syracuse. Roman Emperor Nero demanded that the Games take place a year early, in A.D. 67, when his schedule would allow him to travel from Rome to compete. After bribing officials to disqualify competitors, he won six events—including a race he didn’t finish after falling from his chariot.
Conditions were primitive, but most attendees were happy to sleep under the stars to watch the world’s greatest athletes perform—and to curry favor with Zeus and the other gods who were worshipped during the proceedings. In the earliest years, the only event was a simple foot race on a straight strip of grass the length of the stadium—a unit of measure known as a stade (185m/610 ft.). By 500 B.C., wrestling, boxing, discus throwing, and more than 50 events took place over the course of 5 days in the hippodrome, gymnasium, stadium, and other arenas. The most popular event was the pankration, a combined wrestling-boxing-kicking match with only two rules: no biting or eye gouging. Strangulation was perfectly acceptable. The game ended when one athlete quit, passed out, or died. Polydamas, a pankration champ, was as famous for his exploits off the field as on. He slew a lion with his bare hands, stopped a speeding chariot in its tracks, and single-handedly defeated a trio of Persia’s mightiest warriors.
Regardless of social status, any free, Greek-speaking male without a criminal record could enter the games. Victors won money, tax exemption, free meals for life, laurel wreaths, the favor of the gods, and the services of Hetaeras, high-class escort girls, at the victors’ table. In general, women were barred from watching or participating in the Games (only virgins and certain priestesses could attend), although they had their own Games in honor of Hera, Zeus's wife, in non-Olympic years. Any woman caught sneaking into the Olympic Games was summarily thrown to her death from a nearby mountain.
One brave female, Kallipateira, dressed as a trainer to watch her son compete but accidentally revealed her sex while climbing over a wall. Her life was spared, but from then on trainers, like athletes, were not allowed to wear clothes—though boxers were allowed to wear metal knuckle bands to add sting to their punches. Competitors rubbed themselves with olive oil and sand, an ancient sunscreen, and ate ground lizard skin, their version of steroids.
The 5-day Olympic festival was held every 4 years between 776 B.C. and A.D. 393 at full moon in mid-August or September, after the summer harvest. Participants came from as far away as Asia Minor and Italy, and the entire Greek world observed a truce to allow athletes and spectators to make their way to Olympia safely. During all the years that the Games took place, the truce was broken only a handful of times.
By the time the Olympic Games opened, thousands of people had poured into Olympia, and much of the surrounding countryside was a tent city.
No one knows precisely what the order of events was, but the 5 days included footraces, short and long jumps, wrestling and boxing contests, chariot races, the arduous pentathlon (discus, javelin, jumping, running, and wrestling), and the vicious pankration.
The 3rd-century-A.D. writer Philostratos recorded that participants in the pentathlon "must have skill in various methods of strangling." The most prestigious event was the stade, or short footrace, which gave its name to the stadium. Each Olympiad was named after the winner of the stade, and athletes like the 2nd-century-B.C. Leonidas of Rhodes, who won at four successive Olympics, became international heroes. In addition to the glory, each victor won a crown made of olive branches and free meals for life in his hometown.
The straggling modern village of Olympia (confusingly known as Ancient Olympia) is bisected by its one main street, Leoforos Kondili. The town has the usual assortment of tourist shops selling jewelry, T-shirts, and reproductions of ancient pottery and statues, as well as more than a dozen hotels and restaurants. Two things worth visiting in town: the small Museum of the Olympic Games and the excellent Galerie Orphee bookstore.
The ancient site of Olympia is a 15-minute walk south of the modern village, but if you have a car, you might as well drive: The road teems with tour buses and the walk is less than relaxing.