September 12, 2013

The Olympics

For us, a trip to Greece wouldn’t have been complete without taking time to see the birthplace of the Olympic Games. The effort needed to get there was one of the sole reasons we chose to only stay in Greece on this vacation. Tucked away in the mountains, far west from Athens, is the original Ancient Olympic site from 776 BC.

It was not what we expected at all. Maybe we had imagined a gymnasium and stadium, but it was so much more than that. The Olympics actually started as a religious pilgrimage held every four years. And because a small hill in Ancient Olympia is where the ancient Greeks believed that Zeus was born, they built their most important temple to honor him at the base of the sacred hill. The temple – not the sports facilities – was the center of attention in Ancient Olympia.

The Greeks believed that training the body was just as important as training the mind, and so over time, the athletic portion of the pilgrimage gained importance. Athletes from all over the Greek world traveled to compete in events like boxing, discuss, javelin, and running. They were serious about competition and often began training regiments and special diets during childhood. The games also served as a peaceful event to bring together warring city-states during a month-long truce. The similarities to today’s Olympic Games are striking.

It was interesting to compare the peaceful games that the Greeks began in 776 BC to the bloody gladiator contests that the Romans instituted in their coliseums hundreds of years later. It seems to go against logic that civilization would have become more barbaric as years passed. The Greeks were just ahead of their time.

One of the neatest things about Ancient Olympia is its setting. Most ancient ruins are found in an open field of dirt, but this site is situated in a shady grove of leafy trees. It feels like a hidden oasis. 

We were also shocked at how open the access was. There were barely any ropes holding in us back, and so in most cases, we could just play among the rubble. This was no museum with ancient artifacts sitting behind a glass case! 

An interesting fun fact about Greek columns is that they did not build them out of one solid piece of marble. Instead they stacked circular limestone pieces on top of each other to create the visual illusion of one solid column. But after thousands of years and some earthquakes, the columns have toppled and fallen like dominoes. 

Hopping among the fallen columns, which now look like giant cogs, was one of our very favorite memories from Greece.

In those days people didn’t live in Ancient Olympia, and so fanning out from the temple of Zeus are the kinds of buildings you’d expect to find when there’s a sudden influx of athletic pilgrims…a 145-room hotel, two gyms, a Roman emperor’s palace, fountain, council chamber where competitors took an oath not to cheat, and the winners circle. It’s a large complex, and it’s easy to envision the place abuzz with athletes scurrying about in their preparations. 

The culmination of our time at Ancient Olympia was most definitely the stadium. We could hardly believe that we had the entire place to ourselves. 

We giggled like kids as we lined up at the starting blocks and took off in sprints over and over again.

The first Olympic Games featured only one event: a sprint race down the 192 meter stadium, a distanced known as one stadion. It would be a crime to come all this way, and not give it a try. And so the results are…

Katie: 46:40 seconds
Steve: 42:40 seconds
Usan Bolt: 19.19 seconds

Eventually longer distances were added, and instead of running in circles, athletes just ran back and forth in their lanes. 

This stadium is also where they held the shot-put competition during the 2004 Athens Games. How cool must it have been for those athletes to compete here?!?

Even though it was a pain to get to, we really had so much fun in Ancient Olympia. We took our time and spent 3 hours wandering around the entire complex. Leaving the stadium was the most difficult part. It’s always hard to turn your back in something you’ve wanted to see your whole a place you know you’ll probably never see again.

The Olympic Games were held in Ancient Olympia for over 1,000 years from 776 BC until 393 AD. And we have the Germans to thank for this experience. When they were awarded the modern Olympic Games in 1937, they had a keen interest in the ancient games and did much of the excavation in Ancient Olympia.

In 2007, wildfires burned the sacred hill where Zeus was supposedly born. Can you imagine what a bad omen that must have been for the Greek people? The fire came shockingly close to the ancient ruins…like less than 100 feet. I just cannot imagine how devastating it would have been to lose this incredible treasure that has had such a tangible impact on our modern-day lives.

Supporting the ancient site is the modern-day town of Olympia, where flags from around the world line the main street. The coolest part about living here has got to be that these people live in the "Olympic Village” and can legitimately call themselves "Olympians".

While we were in Athens, we also got to see the Panathenaic Stadium which was used for the first modern Olympic Games held in 1896. This is also where the marathon finished during the 2004 Athens Olympics.

This is a fun place to visit. In addition to its incredible view of the Acropolis and Parthenon, it’s also in mint condition. 

It’s a very long and skinny circular track with only 6 lanes. We took turns running a 400 meter lap. Steve beat me by 18 seconds and got to stand atop the podium.

Deep underneath the marble stands, there’s a small museum that displays torches and posters from each of the modern games.

Only a few weeks after we visited the site at Ancient Olympia, the Olympic flame for Sochi, Russia was lit there. They use a concave mirror that amplifies the sunlight to ignite the Olympic flame. So you can appreciate that the flame you'll see in Russia 5 months from now or in Brazil 2 years from now will have come from the sunshine in Greece.

From the flame that is lit deep in the Greek heartland, to their athletes getting to enter the stadium first during the Opening Ceremonies, we think it’s really cool that Greece is given a prominent role at every Olympic Games. They deserve it. What a wonderful gift they have given the world. 


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