Olympia in History & Today

The first historical Olympic Games were the earliest event to which Greeks confidently assigned a date – the year equivalent to our 776 bc. Revealing yet another foundation myth, Pausanias writes that at this time the Delphic oracle advised King Iphitus of Elis to put an end to a rash of wars and plagues by renewing the Olympic Games, which had been long abandoned. For the next fifty-two years of their existence the only contest was the ‘stade’ footrace (the origin of our word ‘stadium’), a dash of approximately two hundred yards. The focus of the first Olympics was on religion, not athletics, and even when they were enlarged to cover five days, ritual dominated the pivotal third day, coinciding with the August full moon. A night-time ceremony at Pelops’ grave mound was followed next morning by the sacrifice of a hundred oxen to Zeus, with footraces run that afternoon.

Held every four years at a rural sanctuary far from any city, the early Olympics were essentially a local festival. Records suggest that the first victors came exclusively from Elis. As more events were added, however, and the renown of the Games increased, ever larger numbers of athletes from throughout the Greek world strove to compete, until by the sixth century bc the Olympics were a panhellenic festival, whose participants were protected by a ritual truce. However, participation was restricted. Competitors and audience had to be Greek-speakers, free from blood-guilt and male. (The Heraia, a separate festival, was held for women.)

Four bearded adults and a youth sprint naked on an amphora awarded to the winner of the Panathenaic stade race, c. 530 BC.

By the early sixth century bc the programme was enlarged to include boxing, wrestling and the pentathlon, as well as equestrian events: horse- and chariot-racing. The sanctuary, too, was enhanced. The Temple of Hera, first built in wood in 700 bc, was gradually restored in stone, and in the fifth century bc the magnificent Temple of Olympian Zeus was constructed in marble, paid for from the spoils of Elis’ victory over its neighbour, Pisa. With sculptures featuring characters from each of Olympia’s prehistoric foundation myths (Zeus, Pelops and Heracles), the building housed a seated statue of Zeus 12 m (40 ft) tall and faced in gold and ivory. Constructed by Pheidias, it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. As the Roman philosopher Epictetus remarked: ‘You journey to Olympia to gaze on the statue of Zeus and every one of you would think it a great misfortune to die never having seen it. ’

With vast numbers flocking to the Games, living conditions during the festival could be difficult. Epictetus complained about ‘the cacophony, the din, the jostling, the shoving, the crowding’, asking: ‘Are you not burned by the sun? Are you not squashed by the crowds? Can you get clean? Don’t you get drenched by the rains? Don’t you have to endure noise and tumult and all the other unpleasantness?’ He concluded nonetheless: ‘I think that you are happy to put up with all of this when you think of the splendour of the spectacles.’

Olympia in History & Today Photo Gallery

The festival afforded opportunities not just to athletes. Near the Temple of Hera, a row of treasuries proclaimed the wealth of (primarily) Doric cities. Individuals preened too. Draped in a cloak embroidered in gold letters with his name, the artist Zeuxis advertised his wares; Herodotus read from his Histories in the west portico of the Temple of Olympian Zeus; and the philosopher Hippias of Elis, who produced the first victors’ lists, paraded his skills in rhetoric and metalwork. Sculptors vied for commissions to create statues of winning athletes and chariot teams, and politicians, too, exploited the Games. In 416 bc the Athenian Alcibiades entered seven chariot teams, coming first, second and fourth (or third in some sources) before entertaining every spectator at a
banquet provided at his own expense. After his victory at Chaeronea in 338 bc, Philip II of Macedon erected a round temple in honour of himself and his family; and in ad 67 Nero was crowned victor in the chariot race despite falling from his chariot, being helped back in and still failing to complete the course.

Olympia’s wealth made it vulnerable. It was attacked by the Heruli in ad 267 and sacked by Alaric the Goth in 397. By then many of its treasures had already been carried west to Rome. Even the statue of Zeus was gone. An attempt to move it in around ad 40 had failed – workmen were frightened off when it emitted unearthly groans – but in 390 it was dismantled and shipped to Constantinople, where it provided inspiration to Christian icon painters wishing to represent the face of God.

Despite the outlawing of pagan practices in 391, the Games may have continued until 425. Stripped of its festival, Olympia was nothing. In 522 and 551 earthquakes toppled its temples. In the following centuries the River Alpheus changed its course, silting up the site to such an extent that by the eighteenth century its location was unknown. In 1766 the English antiquary Richard Chandler rediscovered it; initial excavations were begun in 1829, and in 1875 the German School of Archaeology began a thorough survey. But it was only in 2008 that the site of the hippodrome was discovered.

In 1896 the Frenchman Baron de Coubertin inaugurated the modern Olympic Games held not at Olympia but in Athens and inspired by the combined ethos of the ancient festival and the English public school. Now staged in venues across the world, the Games are heralded by a ceremony in which characters clad in pseudo-Classical garb light a torch in front of the Temple of Hera at Olympia. Without ancient pedigree, this ritual was invented by the cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl to enhance her film glorifying the 1936 Berlin Olympics under Adolf Hitler.

Being flat, leafy and large enough to absorb crowds, Olympia affords a pleasant visit. From the entrance, a path leading to the Altis (sanctuary) passes the palaestra (gymnasium) (right) and the prytaneum (administration building) (left) before reaching the partially restored Philippeion. From here it is best to take a clockwise route past (left) the Temple of Hera and the exedra (fountain) of Herodes Atticus, and (right) the sites of Pelops’ grave mound and the Altar of Zeus. Next are the treasuries (left on the rise) and vaulted passage into the stadium. Continuing clockwise the Stoa of Echoes (where trumpeting competitions were held from Hellenistic times) is on the left. Further on are the remains of Nero’s villa near the bouleuterion (Council Chamber, where athletes swore an oath to compete fairly). Close by, too, are the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus and a pillar once surmounted by a statue of Victory by Paionios. Further on is (left) the Leonidaeum (a late fourth-century BC hotel) and (right) the workshop of Pheidias, whose dimensions exactly replicate those of the cella of the Temple of Zeus and where the sculptor and his team worked on the statue. Later converted into a church, when excavated it yielded a cup inscribed, ‘I belong to Pheidias’.

Highlights of Olympia’s Archaeological Museum include sculptures from the Temple of Zeus (pediments showing Pelops, Zeus and Apollo; metopes showing the Labours of Heracles); the Victory of Paionios; a fifth-century BC terracotta of Zeus and Ganymede; the helmet of Miltiades dedicated after the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC; and a Roman marble copy of a bronze statue of Hermes by Praxiteles.