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My Great Greek Adventure: Ancient Olympia

The National Herald

Olympic Race Track in Olympia. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

What is the true mark that a society and system has been good and successful? Perhaps it is the ability to remain honored, remembered, and replicated through the ages. The ancient Olympic Games have continued to influence modern sports and society today, and remain a symbol of global unity. Athletes of all genders and abilities, from all over the world and specializing in a vast array of skills come together in friendly contest and celebration. But the original Olympic Games in Ancient Greece were much different and certainly were competitive. The ancient games were full of extreme sports and contests like chariot racing and extreme wrestling with no rules or regulations. But even so, the Olympic Games were incredibly important to the Greeks and were seen as a holiday since their origin in 776 BC. These types of sporting events and contests were common throughout Greece and were often dedicated to a God. The Olympics were dedicated to Zeus, the King of the gods and became the most significant of all the games. They would go on the be celebrated for twelve centuries and followed the same four-year tradition or Olympiad timing we carry today.

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Priestesses perform during the lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The Olympics brought soldiers and free men from city-states all over Greece together calling for truces if needed. Although during the sporting events there was ruthless competing, the participants also shared meals and prayers during their off hours. When they were not in the ring fighting, they were making sacrifices to Zeus and putting together a big barbeque as the five-days long Games continued. Some events were calmer and more sophisticated, like the running and jumping contests. The running or stade contest was the original event and in the beginning years the only event held at the Olympics. The contest was held in a rectangular field about 192 meters long, where the runner needed to cross the field and run back to the starting line first in order to win. Very simple but still challenging in method, and those who were the fastest on their feet were praised and seen as gifted. To honor their victory, winners were given sacred crowns made from olive branches. The most sacred piece of art and symbol of victory at the Games was the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the ancient wonders of the world.

The Olympics always took place in the city of Olympia in the northwestern Peloponnese. The name was in honor of Mount Olympus, the home of the Gods and the tallest peak in Greece. The Olympics would continue until 393 AD when monotheistic religion was asserting its place, banning the ancient gods and their traditions. The Olympic Games would not make an appearance again until the modern day in 1896 in their ancestral home of Greece. The Panathenaic or Kallimarmaro Stadium was constructed in the capital city of Athens and hosted the first Olympic Games that we know today. Ancient events like the martial art sport of pankration were no more, but new traditions like the Marathon race took shape. It was an homage to the ancient soldier Pheidippides who ran about 42 kilometers from the city of Marathona in Eastern Attica to Athens to notify the people of the victory over the invading Persians. The same distance and route were used as the setting for the first ever Marathon race at the 1896 Olympics, which was won by a Marathona native, Spyridon Louis.

While these modern stadiums became home to new sports and traditions, the village of Olympia in Peloponnesus remains the capital of the Olympic Games. Today the main attraction in town are the ancient ruins of the buildings that hosted the first Games. Structures in the archeological park include the Temple of Hera and the Temple of Zeus with many of their Doric columns still standing tall. Walking through the park you can imagine what the buildings looked like during their glory days. Behind all the rest of the ruins and in a large flat field are the remnants of the Stade, where all the events took place, in particular, the running race. To get to the field you must walk through the incredibly well preserved archway that once welcomed heroes and gods. Naturally, many priceless artifacts were uncovered when excavations of the ruins began. These are housed in the Archeological Museum of Olympia located at the entrance to the road leading to the ruins.

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The Archaeological Site of Ancient Olympia. (Photo by Eurokinissi)

The village of Olympia is small and only a few blocks long in size, but it is home to a wonderful collection of historic artifacts. Along with the archeological museum, there is a large and grand museum dedicated specifically to the Olympic Games, where you will find marble statues and art honoring the winners. Trophies and ceremonial pieces of the early Olympics line the walls.

There is also a museum dedicated to the famous mathematician Archimedes. Inside there are dozens of recreations of some inventions and illustrations of his theories. Following the road leading to the ancient ruins and tucked behind the hills that cradle the archeological park you will find the International Olympic Academy. The IOA is designed as a cultural center that focuses on spreading the Olympic Spirit. That means investing in education and research that support the ideals of dignity for people and planet. The academy is open to ideas and conversations with people from all walks of life, and is not limited to the realm of athletics and sport. There are educational programs that range from youth programs to graduate degrees, and sophisticated publications like their own journal. The beautiful institution has everything a cultural center should, like a theater, classrooms, and a library. The grounds outside are fully equipped with all sorts of sporting spaces like a soccer field, tennis and basketball courts, a pool, and track and field facilities. There is even accommodation for Olympians and a café. The most appealing aspect of the IOA is that it is situated in the rightful home of the Olympic Games. And although Olympia now seems like a small village, it is in fact a center for humanity and unity that starts when we come together in sport, in education, in great challenges, and beyond.