Every two years, the world watches the Olympic torch travel around the world until it reaches the latest site for the winter or summer games. Many people, however, do not know where the torch starts its journey, or why. The torch is lit in Olympia, Greece, and commemorates athletic competitions that are at least three thousand years old.
So Ancient, Everyone’s Forgotten Why …
The ancient Greek city of Olympia was where the first documented set of organized “games” was played. Olympia was convenient to reach by ship; athletes and spectators traveled from Greek colonies as far away as modern-day Spain, the Black Sea, or Egypt. Athletic contests were one way the ancient Greeks honored their gods during religious festivals. Olympia is one of the oldest religious centers of ancient Greece, so it was logical to hold competitions at the site of the major temple to Zeus.
… or When
The first recorded Olympic victory dates back to 776 B.C. In addition to poetry contests, there was one only event, the foot race, which was run the length of the stadium at the sacred grove of Zeus. An international truce among the Greeks was declared for the month before the Olympics to allow everyone to reach Olympia safely. The judges could fine whole cities and ban their athletes from competition for breaking the truce.
By the end of 4th century BC, many other events were added. Chariot and horse racing, discus throwing, the javelin, the long jump, boxing, wrestling, and the pentathlon extended the games to five days. Participants were required to train for eleven months. The winners became instant heroes; poets and musicians sang of their strength and beauty and sculptors captured their images
Maidens as Well as Men?
The Olympics were open to any free-born, non-criminal Greek citizen. There were separate men’s and boy’s divisions for the events. While married women were barred from viewing the games because the men competed nude, maidens were allowed to attend. Women could enter equestrian events as the owner of a chariot team or an individual horse. The winner of the first Olympic chariot and pair race is listed as “Belistiche, a woman from the seaboard of Macedonia.” In honor of the goddess Hera, a maidens’ footrace was held at the Olympic stadium. Although the racecourse was shorter than the men’s track, the winners received olive crowns just like male victors. A large stone slab still exists where the men of importance and the high priestess sat to watch the Games
The Buildings of Olympia
As the fame of Olympia spread, new buildings were added throughout the golden ages, and existing structures were renovated many times. The Temple of Zeus, which housed an oracle, was built in the middle of the 5th century BC, larger and more elaborate than anything on the site. Phidias created a statue that was rumored to be 13,5 meters (37,5 feet) high, which pictured Zeus sitting with a scepter in his left hand and the goddess Nike standing on his right. The statue was made of gold and ivory, and was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The statue disappeared towards the end of the 4th century AD; only coins and descriptions remain.
The Prytaneion was built at the northwest side of the site in 470 BC. Further sporting facilities, including the final version of the stadium and the hippodrome (for equestrian events) were constructed. The Metroon was constructed near the Treasuries circa 400 BC. The erection of the Echo Stoa, around 350 BC, separated the sanctuary from the facilities of the Games. The South Stoa was built at approximately the same time.
In the late 4th century BC, Philip II of Macedonia commissioned the Philippeion, the only building in Olympia dedicated to humans. It was designed by the Athenian sculptor Leochares in celebration of Philip’s victory at the battle of Chaeronea. The Ionic circular structure of ivory and gold, built in the Altis of Olympia, contained statues of Philip’s family: Alexander the Great, Olympias, Amyntas III and Eurydice I. The building was completed by Alexander, who personally competed during the games. He proved to be a better general than an athlete.
Around 300 BC the largest building on the site, the Leonidaion, was constructed to house important visitors. Due to the increasing importance of the games-and as it became a great place for Greek princes to talk without danger-further athletic buildings were constructed, including the Palaestra, the Gymnasion, and the bath houses, complete with a swimming pool and a sauna. Finally, in 200 BC, a vaulted archway was erected linking the sanctuary to the entrance to the stadium. The archway still stands.
The End of the Games
By the 4th century AD, Rome was becoming strongly Christian. As the Olympic Games were primarily a religious celebration in honor of Zeus, the emperors discouraged the old pagan religious practices, and found the competitors’ nakedness highly immoral. In 393 or 394 AD, Emperor Theodosius I formally abolished the games.
In the 6th century earthquakes destroyed the buildings in Olympia, and it was filled with mud from the flooded rivers. Landslides from Mt. Kronion finally covered the entire area. In 1776 the site of the Olympic Games was discovered, and in 1896 Athens, the capital of Greece, became the site of the first modern Olympic Games.
Visiting Olympia and the Museum
Daytrips to Olympia are offered by many holiday resorts. You can also take a bus from Athens, as well as from Kalamata and Kyllini, for example. There are hotels and rooms in Olympia town, which is walking distance from the site museum, which houses a model plan of how the site must have looked in its day. Among the many interesting artworks is the sculpture of Hermes by Praxiteles, the Nike of Paionius, and Miltiades’ helmet. The pediments from the temple of Zeus picture the myth of Peleus and Hippodameia on one side and the myth of Apollo, the Centaurs and the Lapiths on the other. There are also several objects from the actual games, including objects the athletes used while cleaning themselves or competing, as well as votive offerings that people dedicated to the gods in order to get cured.