One of the most celebrated archaeological sites in Greece is located at the foot of the pine-covered Kronion hill and set in a valley where the Kladeos and Alpheios rivers join. Just as athletes from city-states throughout ancient Greece made the journey to compete in the ancient Olympics—the first sports competition—visitors from all over the world today make their way to the small modern Arcadian town. The Olympic Games, first staged around the 8th century BC, were played here in the stadium, hippodrome, and other venues for some 1,100 years. Today, the venerable ruins of these structures attest to the majesty and importance of the first Olympiads. Modern Olympia, an attractive mountain town surrounded by pleasant hilly countryside, has hotels and tavernas, convenient for visitors to the ancient site.
As famous as the Olympic Games were—and still are—Olympia was first and foremost a sacred place, a sanctuary honoring Zeus, king of the gods, and Hera, his wife and older
sister. The sacred quarter was known as the Altis, or the Sacred Grove of Zeus, and was enclosed by a wall on three sides and the Kronion hill on the other. Inside the Altis were temples, altars, and 12 treasuries of various city-states.
To honor the cult of Zeus established at Olympia as early as the 10th century BC, altars were first constructed outdoors, among the pine forests that encroach upon the site. But around the turn of the 6th century BC, the earliest building at Olympia was constructed, the Temple of Hera, which originally honored Zeus and Hera jointly, until the Temple of Zeus was constructed around 470 BC. The Temple of Zeus was one of the finest temples in all of Greece. Thirteen columns flanked the sides, and its interior housed the most famous work of ancient Greece—a gold and ivory statue of Zeus. Earthquakes in 551 and 552 finished off the temple.
After the Treasuries, the Bouleuterion, and the Pelopeion were built, the 5th and 4th centuries BC—the Golden Age of the ancient games—saw a virtual building boom. The monumental Temple of Zeus, the Prytaneion, and the Metroon went up at this time. The enormous Leonidaion was built around 300 BC, and as the games continued to thrive, the Palaestra and Gymnasion were added to the complex.
The history of the Olympic Games is long and fabled. For almost 11 centuries, free-born Greeks from the various city-states gathered to participate in the games, held every four years in August or September. These games became so much a part of the culture that the four-year interval between the games became a standard unit of time, an Olympiad. An Olympic truce—the Ekecheiria—allowed safe passage for athletes from the different city-states traveling to the games, and participation in them meant allegiance to a "Panhellenic" ideal of a united Greece. The exact date of the first games is not known, but the first recorded event is a footrace, a stade, run in 776 BC. A longer race, a diaulos, was added in 724 BC, and wrestling and a pentathlon—consisting of the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw, a footrace, and wrestling—in 708 BC. Boxing and chariot racing were 7th-century BC additions, as was the pankration, a no-holds-barred match (broken limbs were frequent and strangulation sometimes the end)—Plato, the great philosopher, was a big wrestling fan. By the 5th century BC, the games featured nine events, held over four days, with the fifth day reserved for the ceremonies. Most of the participants were professional athletes, for whom winning a laurel wreath at Olympia ensured wealth and glory from the city-states that sponsored them.
Today's tranquil pine-forested valley at Olympia, set with weathered stones of peaceful dignity, belies the sweaty drama of the first sporting festivals. Stadium foot-races run in the nude; pankration wrestling so violent today's Ultimate Fighting matches look tame; weeklong bacchanals—serviced by an army of prostitutes—held in the Olympic Village: Little wonder this ancient event is now called the "Woodstock of its day" by modern scholars (wrestlers, boxers, and discus-throwers being the rock stars of ancient Greece).
For today's sightseer, the ruins of many of Olympia's main structures are still visible. The Altis was the sacred quarter, also known as the Sacred Grove of Zeus. In the Bouleuterion, the seat of the organizers of the games, the Elean senate, athletes swore an oath of fair play. In the Gymnasion, athletes practiced for track and field events in an open field surrounded by porticoes. In the Hippodrome, horse and chariot races were run on a vast racecourse. The House of Nero was a lavish villa built for the emperor's visit to the games of AD 67, in which he competed. The Leonidaion was a luxurious hostel for distinguished visitors to the games; it later housed Roman governors. The Metroon was a small Doric temple dedicated to Rhea (also known as Cybele), Mother of the Gods. The Nymphaion, a semicircular reservoir, stored water from a spring to the east that was distributed throughout the site by a network of pipes. The Palaestra was a section of the gymnasium complex used for athletic training; athletes bathed and socialized in rooms around the square field. The Pelopeion, a shrine to Pelops, legendary king of the region now known as the Peloponnese, housed an altar in a sacred grove. Pheidias's Workshop was the studio of the great ancient sculptor famed for his enormous statue of Zeus, sculpted for the site's Temple of Zeus. The Prytaneion was a banquet room where magistrates feted the winners and a perpetual flame burned in the hearth. The Stadium held as many as 50,000 spectators, who crowded onto earthen embankments to watch running events. The starting and finishing lines are still in place. The Temple of Hera, one of the earliest monumental Greek temples, was built in the 7th century BC. The Temple of Zeus, a great temple and fine example of Doric architecture, housed Pheidias's enormous statue of the god, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The famous Treasuries were templelike buildings that housed valuables and equipment of 12 of the most powerful of the city-states competing in the games.
You'll need at least two hours to fully see the ruins and the Archaeological Museum of Olympia (to the north of the ancient site), and three or four hours would be better.
Off Ethnikos Odos 74, ½ km (¼ mile) outside modern Olympia), Olympia, 27025, Greece