The Secrets of Ancient Olympia, Birthplace of the Olympics

You might think you know about Ancient Olympia, home to the first Olympic Games and one of Greece's most revered archaeological sites. But do you know the dark side of the story?

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Once upon a time in ancient Greece, athletes would travel for weeks to reach Olympia, the home of the Olympic Games. Today, the archaeological site, where you can still see the remains of the stadium and the gymnasium, is just an hour-and-a-half drive from Costa Navarino.

The site stands as a compelling reminder of past achievements in athletics and diplomacy. However, our understanding of the activities and rituals that took place at Olympia is changing and, in contrast to an often idealistic view of ancient Greek sport, we are getting a more balanced perspective on the colorful history preserved within the ruins.

The athletes of ancient Olympia are frequently characterized as amateurs, competing in an international, conflict-free, uncommercialized environment, admirably pursuing athletic excellence in accordance with the values of piety, endurance, and humility. A fuller, more accurate picture instead emphasizes the local and religious nature of the games; the occasional military and political intrusions; the peddlers and other profit-seekers; and the professionalism of the often highly-trained competitors, whose primary interest was winning in order to gain prizes and other rewards. The surprising brutality and potential deadliness of some events, the erotic appeal of the athletes, and the readiness of participants to embrace cheating and corruption – against which the Hellanodikai (judges) had always to be on their guard – are also noteworthy.

Events at the ancient Olympic Games consisted mainly of footraces (some in full armor), equestrian contests, the pentathlon (discus, javelin, long jump, footrace and wrestling), boxing, and the pankration – the last two of which could leave competitors severely disfigured or even dead. No boxing gloves were worn, and rules for the pankration barred only biting and eye-gouging.

Emperor Nero won it all

This fascinating dark side of the ancient Olympics includes a particularly notorious case of imperial rule-bending and self-glorification. After the Roman Emperor Nero managed to change the schedules of the major games at Olympia, Isthmia, Nemea and Delphi in AD 67, he “competed” in all four Panhellenic festivals and was awarded a total of 1,808 victory crowns! His list of events included lyre-playing, singing, acting, oratory, and four-horse chariot racing – in which he himself used 10 horses! Later, Olympia’s officials declared the games invalid – but only after the infamously murderous emperor had removed himself to the Underworld.

A sanctuary remodeled

Less dark but still interesting is the fact that the site of the ancient Olympic Games was originally a place of worship. Sanctuaries in ancient Greece were clearly defined precincts dedicated to one or more gods, within which one would find altars, temples, and small shrines, and other buildings accommodating the needs of pilgrims. The formal sanctuary at Olympia was established during the 10th-8th centuries BC, while the earliest games are traditionally dated to 776 BC, and large-scale competitions did not appear until about a century later. At the heart of the sanctuary was the Altis, the central, sacred area containing the now-lost Altar of Zeus; the Doric temples of Zeus, (ca. 470-457 BC), Hera (ca. 600 BC) and Cybele or Rhea (early 4th century BC), as well as the Precinct of Pelops (Mycenaean, renovated in the early 5th century BC). Through the Classical era, the sanctuary’s focus remained the worship of Zeus, with only the simplest measures taken to provide for athletes and spectators. Gradually, however, the emphasis changed and the games became more elaborate and important, as reflected in the site’s architectural development.

By Hellenistic and Roman times, the area featured a gymnasium, a palaestra (used to practice boxing, wrestling and jumping), a stadium, a hippodrome, and leschai (athletes’ clubhouses). Visitors’ accommodations included hostels, baths, stoas (or colonnades) offering protection from the weather, and ceremonial dining halls, the grandest of which was the “Leonidaion,” with 80 rooms and a central peristyle courtyard. Official buildings included the Bouleuterion (council/courthouse), where judges and athletes swore to participate fairly in accordance with the rules. The “Zanes” statues, placed outside the stadium’s entrance, were paid for by fines levied on athletes caught breaking the rules – a reminder that not all competitors adhered to their vows.

Also of special note are the buildings that recall the far-reaching cultural and political significance of Olympia. On a terrace overlooking the Altis was a row of small treasuries, erected by city-states from all around the ancient Greek world to house precious dedications. Just beside them was a lofty statue-adorned nymphaeum (fountain house), donated by Athens’ Herodes Atticus or his wife Regilla (mid-2nd century AD), which provided a welcome source of water. Further west, Philip II constructed a circular Ionic/Corinthian heroon (a shrine, dating to after 338 BC), which showcased the Macedonian royal family and his own newfound dominance over Greece.

Outside the Altis, the workshop of the famous sculptor Phideas offers evidence of his efforts at Olympia, where he produced a gigantic, gold and ivory cult statue of Zeus (ca. 430 BC) that presided over the sanctuary for some 800 years and was renowned as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The museums

Olympia’s museums should not be missed. The Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games of Antiquity contains statues, painted vases, inscriptions, and other illuminating artifacts related to ancient athletics. The Archaeological Museum of Olympia offers many impressive displays, among them the pedimental, Severe style sculptures (early 5th century BC) from the Temple of Zeus, and the famous work of Praxiteles known as Hermes and the Infant Dionysus.