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From the sanctuary of Olympia

This weekend was a breath of fresh air. After traveling alone for almost a week having only had 2 substantial conversations–one with an Aussie waiting for our bus from Delphi, the other with a Swiss kid on the way back from Mycenae–I got to meet up with a dear, dear friend of mine and make some new ones who were working on the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project.

Our destination on Sunday was none other than Olympia, home to the ancient Olympic games. It was fitting to go to Olympia with them, because their site, located near Megalopolis, in Arcadia, has brought forth finds that suggest Mt. Lykaion–a possible “birthplace” of Zeus–to be the originator of games to Zeus that inspired the ancient Olympics.That the modern Olympics fall this year was an even cooler coincidence.

Here are the basics: the ancient Olympic games supposedly began in 776 BCE in Olympia in honor of Zeus, king of the gods. Just as in the modern Olympics, the ancient games took place every four years, and (male, Greek-speaking) athletes came from all over the country to participate.

Events that were held during these games:

Boxing: unlike today’s boxing matches, ancient boxing didn’t have weight classes, nor were there rules about beating an opponent while he was down. You win when you knock the guy out, or he quits on ya.

Chariot Racing: Races lasted for 9 miles (12 laps around the stadium), and were divided in category by number of horses you had (2 or 4).

Horse riding: This sport strikes me as having huge similarities with modern horse-racing. Because of the high cost of training, feeding and equipping a horse and his jockey, the owner was the one who got the laurel wreath and the glory. Their event was 6 laps around the arena, or a little more than 4 miles.

Pankration: A combo of wrestling and boxing. The only limits were NO gouging or biting in the eye/nose/mouth area. Yikes.

Pentathlon: Included discus, javelin, jumping, running & wrestling. 


Running events: Just like now, there were a variety of running events, varying in length. One that we certainly don’t have anymore is the hoplite race, which required the participants to run in full hoplite armor, which weighed up to 60 lbs!

Wrestling: You had to down your opponent 3 times fairly. Oh, and don’t forget, no genital grabbing or biting.

Ancient Olympia, as a site, is expansive. Temples, altars, treasuries, stoas, training areas, housing areas, and the stadium were all part of the deal, so I’m going to share some highlights.

Ruins of colonnades from the gymnasion

Gymnasion: Your instinct to think “gym” is right! The gymnasion was basically a structure where men could train for running, javelin and discus, so there was an open-air central courtyard to do all these things, with a colonnade running around it. Nearby was the Palaistra, another training building but with more roofing and with special rooms for body work like oiling up those muscle-y muscles or having baths, as well as training for wrestling, jumping and boxing.

Temple of Hera at Olympia

The Temple of Hera: an archaic Doric temple, this place was supposedly where they housed the disk of the Sacred Truce, which was an agreement the country had made to allow their athletes safe passage the month before the Olympic games, meaning no one would attack another group at that time. It’s also the oldest temple in the sanctuary, dating to the end of the 7th century BCE. Cool fact: Right in front of this temple is the Altar of Hera, where the Olympic flame is lit for the modern Olympic games, and has been since 1936. 

Council house area



Council House Bouleyterion: where the athletes and judges took the sacred oath, and also the meeting place for the Olympic Committee.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which I somehow forgot to photograph. Well done, me. Anyway, it’s a hugely important peripteral temple, in which once resided a gigantor chryselephantine (ivory & gold) sculpture of a seated Zeus that was 43 feet tall, and worked by the famous sculptor, Phidias! The temple was destroyed in the 6th century CE by earthquakes.

Base of the Zanes

Bases of the Zanes: Probably my favorite things, second to the stadium. These were sculptures of Zeus created as tribute, but were a penalty to cheaters and a warning to athletes considering it! If you cheated in the ancient Olympic games, you kept your olive-leaf crown. BUT, you’d get fined, and with the sum of the fine, this lovely Zeus sculpture would go up, and at the base of the sculpture, the explanation of your cheating scheme would be written. Athletes passed these Zanes–plural for Zeus–on their way into the stadium. Nothing like some good, old-fashioned public humiliation to keep things ethical at the games, eh?

The archway into the stadium. Every Olympic athlete would see this before heading in.

Check it out, I’m right here!

 The Olympic Stadium: With room for about 45,000 people to sit on the grassy surroundings, the Olympic stadium provided special stone seats for the judges on one side, and a spot just for the priestess of Demester, across the track from the judges. 

The starting blocks for the running races.

 The shortest foot race at the Olympics was the stadion, a sprint from one end of the stadium to the other, which was about 192 meters–almost double our classic modern 100 meter dash!

The proper starting position was with the left foot in the front groove of the starting block and the right behind. Barefoot. Here’s a demonstration of proper starting position:

Diana and me showing how the ancients started off! Except for the barefoot thing. We’re not that hardcore.

Naturally, I had to run it. After all, when else would I get to compete where other Olympians had? So, Lauren humored me, and we ran. It was really hot, and we didn’t realize at first where the end of the run was because there was an area about 3/4 of the way down that seemed like the end, but then we saw the finish line and booked it. I won, but she probably let me.

Running a stadion in the Olympic stadium. And no, I didn’t push Lauren out of the way in the 2nd frame, I promise. 

The archaeological museum at the site is also very well curated. Be sure to check out the sweet bronzes, and the main center room is devoted to the marbles from the Temple of Zeus, which depict the labors of Hercules, the battle between the Lapiths & Centaurs, as well as the story of Pelops, who supposedly founded the original Olympic games. 

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