A day’s visit to the birthplace of the Olympic Games will not suffice, so much is there to absorb, with a scale of ancient history that never ceases to astound. The centrepiece of Zeus’ most magnificent sanctuary was the 13.5m tall gold and ivory statue, dedicated to the king of the gods and created by master craftsman Pheidias. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it no longer exists but you will appreciate its scale by visiting and you will be able to admire firsthand other famous artefacts, such as the statue of Hermes by Praxiteles. Both the archaeological site and the museum offer a vivid picture of the splendour, glory and breadth of a civilisation that continues to give so much to the modern world – not just in sporting action, but ethics, ideals and sportsmanship.
The Games, all for the pleasure of Zeus
London, Beijing, Athens… Retracing the history of the Olympic Games back to 776 BC, you arrive at the starting line, where it all began in this gentle, wooded valley of the in the Peloponnese’s Alpheios River. In Zeus’ honour, every four years, this was the scene of an event in which the whole of the Greek-speaking world took part.
The Olympic Games were more than just athletic competitions. They were panhellenic festivals and took precedence over everything occurring at that time, even wars. During the period of the Games, any hostilities between the normally fractious city-states were suspended and the Olympic Truce imposed. Such was the Games’ importance that only twice in thousand years were they interrupted.
The archaeological site
The Sanctuary of Zeus was called the Altis or ‘sacred wood’. A walled area, it enclosed many monuments and buildings beside the Temple of Zeus. You’ll see arcades, smaller temples and statue pedestals. Some of the structures were residential, while others had an administrative or ceremonial function. Zeus’ temple stood at the centre of everything. You can just imagine being faced with his enormous statue, carved from ivory, its gold glittering in the sunlight! Could there ever have been any doubt that he ruled over heaven and earth?
A tour of the ancient stadium
This was where the most important competitions took place. Pass under the arched entrance and you’re in a place where countless VIPs rubbed shoulders with the common folk (but not women), all rooting for their heroes. The stadium you see today was built around the same time as the Temple of Zeus, in the 5th century BC.
The hippodrome for chariot races lies to the south of the stadium. Still standing are ruins left from a later age: baths and villas, like the one Roman emperor Nero had constructed as a private residence when he attended. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Olympic Games gradually lost their prestige since they were considered a pagan festival. They ceased completely in 393 AD when the emperor Theodosius I decreed them unlawful. Olympia never regained the glory and allure it had enjoyed as host of the Games.
But on 18 August 2004, when Athens hosted the Modern Games, those wonderful years came back. The Stadium in Olympia witnessed a reenactment of an ancient sport, the shot put. Both men and women competed, some 1,611 years after the last Games took place there. And of course, Olympia is still the place where the Olympic Flame is lit for each Olympiad.
The peerless Hermes of Praxiteles
In the on-site archaeological museum, you’ll come face to face with one of the greatest marble sculptures of all time, Praxiteles’ Hermes. It is the epitome of beauty, balance and craftsmanship, depicting the god Hermes leaning against a tree trunk, cradling the infant Dionysos in his left arm.
The museum also contains dozens of other finds from the site, dating from prehistoric times to the early Christian era. Look out for the Nike of Paionios and the monumental friezes from the Temple of Zeus, which depict the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos and the fight between Lapiths and Centaurs.
Hidden gems of Ancient Olympia
More monuments, more history
Don’t forget the other ruins: the Temple of Hera (the oldest and best-preserved temple at Olympia), Bouleuterion, Prytaneion, Gymnasion, Palaistra, Pheidias’ Workshop, the Leonidaion, Philippeion, Echo Colonnade, Pedestal of Paionios’s Nike and the Nymphaion. Each has a special aura and its own story.
Museum of the History of the Olympic Games
Here you’ll find 463 works from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and from other museums around Greece.
The Ancient Olympia Festival
An annual event, the Ancient Olympia Festival includes excellent theatrical, music and dance performances.