GREECE for the GOLD
Be the ultimate sports fan — at the original Olympics.
Stepping off a cruise ship, Katakolon appears to be a typical Greek seaside town — colorful old buildings with red tile roofs, moored fishing boats and leisurely sidewalk cafés lining the shimmering waters of the harbor.
But while this sleepy Ionian Sea port at the southern end of Greece has its ethnic charm, myriad tourist spots and tempting eateries, its real fame is as the gateway to Ancient Olympia — site of the original Olympic Games.
WHAT’S IN A GAME
Just 23 miles east, in a treelined valley at the foot of Kronos Hill and bordered by two rivers, sits the ruins of athletic facilities, temples, housing, altars and shrines that served the games.
Today’s games were revived in 1896 and will have only been running for 120 years when the Olympics surface in Rio de Janeiro for 2016. But the original, ancient games were established in 776 B.C. and continued on pretty much every four years for nearly 1,200 years until A.D. 393. That’s when Emperor Theodosius of Rome, who had taken over the Olympics after conquering Greece, ended the event.
A pious Christian, he wanted to ban all forms of pagan worship. And the games were dedicated to the Greek god Zeus and located in Olympia — named for Mount Olympus where Zeus ruled with the other gods. According to lore, the games were founded by Hercules, the strongman hero of Greek legend who was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal princess. The competitions were considered a religious event and the priestesses of Demeter, goddess of fertility, were prominent at the festival.
THE GAMES WERE DEDICATED TO THE GREEK GOD ZEUS AND LOCATED IN OLYMPIA — NAMED FOR MOUNT OLYMPUS WHERE ZEUS RULED WITH THE OTHER GODS.
At the Olympia ruins, you’ll pass under an arch into the stonewall-lined entrance, as did the thousands flocking to the ancient games. You’ll even see still-standing columns marking the temples of Zeus and his wife, Hera.
Walking through the palestra, a huge building 66 meters square (710 square feet), you’ll see dressing rooms, training areas and the arenas where competitions for boxing and wrestling took place. There are also ancient luxury houses where judges and wealthy guests stayed. But the key spot is the stadia, a long rectangular field surrounded by grassy slopes.
Sit down on the green, close your eyes and imagine being one of the 40,000 fans cheering the main events — the foot races.
If you attended around 340 B.C., you might find that the teen cheering beside you is named Alexander. A few years later, he would be heralded as “the Great,” for conquering the known world. Around A.D. 65, the insufferably arrogant guy next to you would be Nero, emperor of Rome. He wants to bet, but don’t do it. Nero was a big cheater. During the A.D. 67 games, he entered the chariot races and while his competitors had teams of four horses, Nero bullied judges into allowing him a team of 10. Still, he was unable to finish, but he shamefully intimidated the judges into declaring him the winner. Later, after his death, his name was stricken from the list of victors.
The first games only featured a 200meter sprint called the stade race, which ran once across the stadium. Longer races and other events were added as the games expanded from one day to three days and finally to five days. In addition to the stade came a 400-meter or two-stade sprint and a distance race, the dolichos, of anywhere from 1,400 to 4,800 meters. Later would come an armor race where the athletes ran carrying a shield and wearing helmets and greaves on their lower legs.
Like running, all of the other events were linked to the skills a warrior needed on the battlefield. Athletes threw the javelin, hurled the discus, boxed and wrestled. They also competed in a long jump in which the contestants leaped holding a stone that they tossed behind them at the last instant to propel themselves farther.
The wrestling was grueling. Matches ended when one contestant gave up. Boxers battered each other with fists wrapped with hard leather straps. Pankration, a version of today’s mixed martial arts, featured boxing and wrestling together. A pentathlon of five events included three foot races along with a long jump and discus throw. Competitors raced horses and chariots in the long, wide hippodrome. At the end of an event, the winner was given a palm branch, and red ribbons were tied in his hair while spectators tossed flowers. Later, an olive wreath was placed on his head at the temple of Zeus.
Ruins of ancient Olympia
Ancient Olympic stadium entrance
1896 opening ceremony, Panathinaiko Stadium
Rites held at the site of the first Olympic games
Statue of Zeus at Olympia
Temple of Hera
Ancient Olympic wrestling