On Monday morning, 27 August, we were up quite early intending to beat the rush of cruise ship tourists to Olympia. There were three ships in the terminal in the morning and the suitably olympic sized car park behind the boat was full of coaches and taxis.
The train to Olympia is a small narrow gauge affair but I assume most of the visitors from the ships were booked on coach tours but even when we got to Olympia it wasn’t that crowded.
The site of Olympia is on the floor of a river valley below the hill named after the god Khronos. The area has been occupied since the Neolithic times, 3000BC, developing into a centre of worship and during the 2nd millennium BC the Myceneans founded the cult of Zeus there.
The origins of the games are lost in myths; the Gods held wrestling matches and running races in Olympia and so ‘games’ were likely a part of religious rites. They were possibly held as far back as the 11th century BC as fairly local affairs but were reorganised in the 8th century, the first Panhellenic Olympic Games being held in 776BC. The concept of the Sacred Truce, during which the warring city states stopped fighting, was instituted to allow peaceful competition.
Another myth of Mycenean origin has the king Oinomaos involved in a chariot race with a suitor for his daughter’s hand. Oinomaos had dreamt he’d be killed by his son-in-law and so, equipped with a pair of unbeatable winged horses from Zeus, challenged all potential candidates. The draw back was that the winner killed the looser! Pelos, arrived on scene and had been given winged horses by Poseidon; Pelos won, killed Oinomaos and had the Peloponnese named after him!
The athletes competed in the games for prestige alone, winning a wreath of wild olive leaves. However; anyone caught cheating had to pay a large fine which was used to dedicate a bronze statue to Zeus. These were known as Zanes and were displayed on the approach to the Stadium. These statues bore the name of the cheating athlete and the manner of his cheating as a warning to others!
The Games developed down the centuries much as they do now with new events being added at intervals, until 393AD when the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I banned them. His successor, Theodosius II then ordered the monuments burnt in 426AD and two earthquakes in 522 and 551AD finished the job. Although a farming settlement remained even that was abandoned by the 7th century and the site slowly disappeared under the flood plain of the Alpheios River.
When you bear in mind this is the birth place of the Olympics and the place where the Olympic Torch is lit before each Games they could have made a bit of an effort with presentation; it is rather overgrown in places and, as elsewhere, there is a dearth of information about the ruins. We had a guide-book but it was difficult to relate the text to the ruins especially as I now find we went around the site ‘backwards’! Some direction arrows could have helped !! There were some signs around the place but it is an extensive, complex site and a lot more wouldn’t have hurt; Audio Guides would have been fantastic; the wold even be a job opportunity for official guides! Despite that it is an impressive site and the sheer scale of some of the ruins give a hint of the enormity of the original.
Olympia is a fantastic place and well worth the visit but it could be an amazing experience with attention to presentation.