Let the games begin

The 300 Olympiads held in Greece had a very different attitude about the events than we moderns do. We celebrate those who even aspire to the gold, those who come to compete, those who almost touch the pinnacle of success.

In the old days, it was much simpler. You either won and became a legend in your own time, or you lost. No runners-up.

Winning, statues were made of your exquisite physique, you received free meals for life, paid no taxes and you could strut home knowing you would be feted and acclaimed forever. Losing, you skulked back to where you came from, and tried to hide behind trees for the rest of your life while school boys snickered at you.

Now that was incentive – and performance enhancement.

We spent the day in the sanctuary of Olympia, one of ancient Greece’s most sacred places. For 1169 years, from 776 BC to 393 AD, the Olympic Games were part of a major religious festival held every four years. The athletic events were much more than games; they were spiritual exercises that expressed the values of the culture.

Olympia is dedicated to Zeus, whose temple is an appropriate centerpiece. The models and aerial view of the site give a good idea of the buildings and athletic structures there at its peak.

One of the first set of ruins we saw belonged to the gymnasium, the largest building in the sanctuary. Built in the 4th century BC, the columns once supported a covered arcade around a large courtyard where training took place for the sprint, discus throw and javelin. In American terms, it was the size of six football fields, side-by-side.

Next is the Palaestra, a “wrestling school” where athletes trained for smaller scale events, like wrestling, boxing, long jump, and – the meanest one of all – the pankration, in which only one of the two contestants could come out alive.

Nearby are benches where the athletes were taught and people gathered for conversation.

One of the most stunning sights is the workshop of the great sculptor Pheidias, who created the 40-foot gold and ivory statue of Zeus that once stood in the temple (and who also built the statue of Athena for the Parthenon). The workshop is directly behind the Temple, placed there to replicate the angle of the sun that would hit the statue, and to enable it to be moved straight into the cella of the Temple. The statue is long gone, but there is are replicas based on contemporary reproductions which give some idea of the scale and details of the piece. The molds that were used are housed in the museum, along with a number of tools from the workshop. The cup that Pheidias used is still there – with his name etched on the bottom. (Kind of like Starbucks.)

The bigwigs were not roughing it at Olympia. The Leonidaion was a 4-star hotel with 145 rooms (including private baths) built in the 4th century BC. The Romans enhanced it, but it still remained a rectangular luxury palace built around a center courtyard with a major water feature.

And now we come to the Temple, centerpiece of Olympia.It was the first of the Golden Age temples and was not much smaller than the Parthenon. It was built in the 5th century BC and stood for 1,000 years before an earthquake toppled what remained, in most dramatic fashion. A reconstructed column indicates how massive and impressive the building must have been. And there’s even an olive tree on the exact spot that Hercules planted the one from which the winners’ wreaths were made.

The sculptures from the pediments are in the museum here, and they are quite dramatic.

In front of the Temple stood the Pedestal of Nike, who now sits in the museum. She looked down on the Winners’ Circle, where the victors were announced and crowned. Pedestals that once held statues of the winners abound.

Bad boys who forsook their oaths not to cheat had to finance a statue of Zeus outside the stadium, with their names and deeds on them. As people entered the stadium, these received a lot of hissing and spitting. Doping, quitting out of cowardice, bribing opponents – these could all get you in quite a bit trouble, and yet people kept doing all the above. (As they still do today…)

And now, the stadium. Originally a fully vaulted tunnel, the entrance for the athletes functioned just like stadiums do today. They entered shouting to the adoring crowds, having stashed their minimal clothing in the holes in the tunnel walls, as they always competed naked.

The stadium track is 640 feet long, and the original starting blocks are still there. In the spirit of the games, Don stripped and put his toes in the proper place before running all the way down the course, being chased by a frantic guard. What a guy.

And P.S. Who says the Romans invented the arch? Wrong!

The oldest structure on the site is the Temple of Hera, Zeus’s wife. Its altar in front is the place where the modern Olympic torch is lit and begins its journey every four years.

The last major structure is the Philippeion, a monument built by Philip of Macedon to mark his triumph over the Greeks, and to celebrate his family, including his son, Alexander. Nothing like rubbing it in.

There were many other ruins we saw, but it was time to go to the museum and cool off. I cajoled Don into a horse ride to the museum, which was far too long to walk and too hot to contemplate. Loved it.

And now for a sample of what we found in the main museum and a separate one just about the games. What a special place this is. Like Delphi, it existed for only one purpose, and it must been spectacular in its prime.

Don’s Food Corner

Once again we found ourselves trapped in a place devoted solely to serving tourists who would never be seen again. But who cares? We were so dazzled and moved by walking through the ruins of Olympia, which, incidentally, was far more intact than I expected, that I couldn’t have cared less what someone threw in front of me and called food.

We stopped at the first restaurant as we exited the ancient site. OK, it was overpriced and geared to foreign tourists, but it delivered on that in a recognizable manner. First, unlike other more authentic Greek restaurants, they brought us a little dish of olives and a small container of olive oil in which you could dip bread from the bread basket.

The Greeks typically never do this. Then, we were able to order a large bottle of sparkling water.  Sparkling water is another thing the Greeks don’t do. It’s flat mineral water for them, or, more frequently, just chilled tap water. That sparkling water is for effete French and Italians and bourgeois New Yorkers.  So be it. It’s refreshing. (It was in the mid-80s today.)

I ordered a pork souvlaki, which was OK. Jo ordered a salad that had various greens, walnuts, some dried currents and a unidentified portion of cheese. Remarkably, it had a dressing that included vinegar, which is another thing that the Greeks don’t seem to like on salads. It’s olive oil and nothing else. She loved it.

This modest lunch was supplemented by various ice creams and granitas as we walked around the town attached to the ancient site.

While the food wasn’t much, it was a truly thrilling day.

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