The Glory That Was: Ruins at Olympia echo cheers from 1,000 years of athletic competition
August 18, 2006
OLYMPIA, Greece - It is the last lap of a chariot race in the Ancient Olympics. The horse teams driven by Flavius and Myrtilus are neck and neck - or necks and necks. Suddenly, with a crack of the whip, the steeds led by Flavius thunder ahead to the finish line.
Now the scene shifts to the Temple of Zeus, where the winners will receive their awards - wreaths made of olive branches.
And in the four-horse chariot race, the announcer says, the prize goes to Melina.
Women weren't allowed to participate in the Ancient Olympics. But the rules of the day allowed Melina to be an Olympic winner because the prize went to the owner of the winning team of horses, not the charioteer.
Flavius? He didn't even get a commercial endorsement.
And in the real-life Ancient Olympics, a Spartan princess, Cynisca, won the four-horse chariot races in 396 and 392 B.C.
That story was among some facts about the Ancient Olympics that were learned on tour of the sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god Zeus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the west coast of the Peloponnesus, the peninsula that forms the southern part of the Greek mainland.
Resting among the lush greens of olive, oak and pine and nourished by two rivers, the sanctuary is the site of the original Olympic stadium. In ancient times, a typical crowd of 40,000 would come every four years to cheer on their hometown favorites. From Macedonia, Rhodes, Corinth, Naxos or Ionia the athletes came, fulfilling a requirement that they had to be Greek.
The sanctuary has another major claim to fame. It was the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Statue of Zeus, which occupied a Doric-style temple built about 460 B.C.
The 40-foot-high statue by the renowned Athenian sculptor Phidias was a tribute to the father of the Gods, in whose honor the Games were being staged. It has been described as a magnificent sculpture of gold, ivory, ebony and jewels that depicted a wreathed Zeus commanding a cedarwood throne, a gold scepter topped by an eagle in one hand and a figure of Nike, the goddess of victory, in the other. For many years it drew worshippers and tourists from around the world.
The temple's once-stately pillars of limestone and marble are now toppled, but the original foundation has survived. Among the columnar ruins, a single reconstructed pillar rises from the foundation to give visitors a sense of the statue's height, which was close to that of a four-story building.
As to what happened to the statue, most accounts say that it was dismantled by wealthy Greeks and carried off to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), where it was destroyed in a fire in A.D. 462.
The sanctuary is furnished with other remnants of the glory that was Greece, including the Temple of Hera, a tribute to the wife of Zeus, the mother of the Gods. One of the most spectacular ruins is the Philippeion, a round structure begun in 338 B.C. by Philip II of Macedonia to commemorate a battle victory. After Philip's death, it was completed by his son, Alexander the Great. Its three remaining Ionic columns easily lead the mind to complete the circle of 18, which enclosed an inner ring of nine Corinthian columns.
The Nymphaion was an elegant place to store the water from the Olympian spring. A monumental fountain and aqueduct, it consisted of a semicircular marble reservoir adorned with statutes.
Reconstruction of some of the Palaestra - where wrestlers and boxers could get training, a rubdown in olive oil, or a bath to wash off the old olive oil - offers a semblance of the original square building, which had rooms surrounding an open courtyard on all four sides. For today's visitors, a path between two stately rows of columns provides for one of the most striking photo opportunities that the sanctuary has to offer.
Attached to the Palaestra is the Gymnasium, and gymnasium means house of the naked people, the tour guide pointed out. There, contestants could practice before entering the stadium and putting their personal and hometown honor on the line.
That the athletes competed in the buff and proudly showed off their fine physiques is commonly known, but an incident in the sixth century forced spectators to bare it all.
Though women were banned from the Olympic stadium, a woman from Rhodes named Callipateira dressed as a man and sneaked into the Games to watch her son, a boxer. Her son was victorious, and overwhelmed with motherly pride and joy, she forgot about her cover and leaped over a barrier to give him a hug. But her clothing snagged on the barrier, and she was exposed.
The usual punishment for that offense was to be thrown from a rock, but Callipateira was spared that fate because she came from a family with a long line of Olympic champions. To prevent such ruses in the future, however, Olympic officials decreed that all spectators in the stadium be naked.
In addition to two-horse and four-horse chariot races, which were held away from the stadium, the sports of the Ancient Olympics included boxing; wrestling; running; track events including the pentathlon, long jump and javelin and discus throws; and the pankration or pancratium, a brutal combination of boxing and wrestling.
Near the arched entryway to the stadium, several now-vacant pedestals once held statues - not of the heroes, but of the disgraced - the cheaters, or perhaps those who used performance-enhancing drugs - if they'd had them back then.
In the 2004 Athens Olympics, the original stadium was used to stage the men's and women's shot put and part of the Opening Ceremony. It also received the Olympic flame.
Meant to symbolize the death and rebirth of Olympic heroes, the flame originated in the Ancient Olympics. It was ignited by the sun and burned throughout the five days of Games. However, many people are surprised to learn that the torch relay was a modern institution that originated during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Those first Olympiads were staged every four years as today, in July or August. They were festivals accompanied by the ancient version of hype and hoopla, until the Romans conquered Greece and had to go and ruin everything, leaving the world without the Games until the Modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896.
It seems that the Romans just didn't have the same appreciation for this Greek sports competition, especially the nakedness, and the whole spectacle came to an end with Emperor Theodosius the Great. The emperor, a Christian, thought that the Olympic festival was too pagan and abolished it around A.D. 400.
But it was good for the 1,000 years that it lasted.
Karen L. Parker