|Every four years the summer Olympics fill
our thought and we watch with wonder how the records of the past are
continuously broken. Today’s athletes do go higher, farther and faster. I’m
sure next summer’s 2004 Olympic games in Athens will produce the same
results. They will be important games because for the first time in modern
times they will be staged where they started, in Greece. This time, however,
they will be in Athens, Originally they were staged at Olympia, some miles
away. That site is still visited by thousands each year and while we will be
watching the competitions in Athenian venues, our minds will still be on
those early games and the site that still holds awe for so many.
I had the good fortune to visit both Olympia and Athens this
summer. It requires great imagination to see Athens as the site of the 2004
games. The city is under construction or reconstruction. To this observer,
they are far from completing the required sites. Even getting into the city
is a mammoth task that could take hours. There are cranes everywhere and I
saw very few people actually working. But it’s not for me to decide if it
will be ready. The Olympic committee visited Athens recently and said the
games will go on. This is one of the miracles of man’s ingenuity.
Consider that unlike the original games that held 10
events, the modern Olympics will feature 28 sports with 10,500 athletes,
3000 officials and 301 medal presentations over a 16-day period. The Olympic
village alone will house 16,000 people. The games require a force of 45,ooo
I did visit the gigantic stadium and was impressed but the
road building alone will be a mega-project. It seems that every time they
uncover some ancient artifact, the work comes to a halt. The work is taking
place on hallowed ground. It’s slow, but it will get done. The last time the
games were in Greece was almost one hundred years ago. It was held there for
the first modern Olympics in 1906.
So, there I was in Greece in the spring of 2003, a year
too early. It was not my first trip to this inviting country. I decided to
drive across the Peloponnesian peninsula and visit the ancient site of
Olympia. It was a thoroughly rewarding experience.
I entered the Sanctuary. Remember, it is an archeological
site, a ruin, a place of strewn rocks, pieces of columns, overgrown treed
areas. But we know exactly where the second century gymnasia were. The large
porticoed spaces where the athletes trained for the pentathlon are still
there, filled with the ghosts of history. This sacred site is said to be
under the protection of Zeus. The ancient Greeks believed that the Olympian
gods inaugurated the games on this site and Zeus defeated Cronos at
wrestling, while Apollo beat Axes at boxing and Hermes at running. Here
Hercules is believed to have organized the first track events. It was he who
crowned the first winner of a foot race with a kitinos, a branch of wild
olive from a tree he himself had planted on the site. Here, in order to
ensure safety of movement for both athletes and spectators, a Sacred Truce
was declared. All hostilities between city-states would be suspended for the
month of the games. They were held every five years and lasted for five
days. We assume that the games were held between the end of July and the
middle of August.
The games became the basis of dating events. Heralds were
sent out to every corner of Greece and their colonies to announce the date,
the opening and the inauguration of the Sacred Truce that would cease all
hostilities and defer all sentences of Capital punishment.
The games go back to 776 BC, a time that is considered the
beginning of Greek historical times. The area of Olympia changed hands many
times over the years but the games continued, except for a few
The Romans arrived in 146 BC and the games flourished
during the rule of Hadrian. They continued until 393 AD when the Emperor
Theodosius forbade them. By the sixth century, earthquakes destroyed the
site as it was. The river Alpheios gradually brought floods that buried the
sanctuary. It was not until 1896 that Baron de Coubertin revived the games.
He planned to “re-establish the games…under conditions conformable to the
needs of modern life and bring together every four years representatives
from all nations…and suppose tat the best of internationalism would be
Since then the games have been held every four years,
except during the two world wars. Each set of games is held in a different
major world capital with participation from all countries.
With the aid of my guide, Loula Haniotaki, I saw the
palaestra where the participants wrestled, boxed and jumped, the altar, the
baths and the official guesthouse. I visited the site where the hippodrome
stood before the floods washed it away. Then I tried my stamina by running
across the long narrow stadium. In my mind I heard the cheering of the
crowd. I ran where ancient Greeks raced, over 2500 years ago. It was moving
to imagine the 45,000 spectators watching the athletes race across the
192.27-meter running track.
We had entered via the crypt or secret entrance. It had a
vaulted roof constructed during Roman times. One can imagine the roar of the
crowd as the athletes entered the stadium through this narrow passage.
On the way to the Temple of Zeus, I was shown the base of
Pianios’ statue of Nike. This important temple was built of local limestone
and originally covered with stucco, except the parts made of marble. Here
there was once a statue of Zeus, seated on a throne, created by the sculptor
Pheidias.And to the north I could see the remainder of the Temple of Hera.
This Doric structure is pre Zeus and dates from 600 BC. The circular base is
partly in place but the columns are mostly crumbled.
While tourists will be interested in the games of Athens
in 2004, the site at Olympia will always be of interest to those who believe
in history as a way to understand who we are. I will return one day. It will
still be there. As for the 2004 site, I’m certain that the games will go on
and they will bring glory to young men and women from many countries. But I
won’t be at the games. For me the original ideas of faster, higher, farther
are the essence of the games. Today they have become commercialized. I will
watch them from the comfort of my home. I do salute the city of Athens for
the efforts they are going through to make the games a success. I know that
they will end up with a series of buildings that can be used for future
generations and the modernization of a city that can certainly use a lift.
Greece is the cradle of our civilization. It was a good move by the powers
that be to give Athens the games. I know they will do well.
But for me, Olympia is the fountain of the games. The
experience of being there will stay with me forever,
The coastal road from Athens via Patra and south to Pirgos
can reach Olympia. The region is littered with ruins of ancient cities,
Byzantine churches and Medieval castles. From Pyrgos the road forks to the
east and through the valley of Olympia. The great remains of Olympia are at
the far end of that valley at the foot of a pine-covered hill. There are
tour companies out of Athens that include Olympia and because you have a
guide to show you around, it becomes the easiest way of going. The Museum
at Olympia is important and contains statues such as Hermes (circa 330 BC),
Zeus and Ganymede (circa 480 BC) and a terracotta head of Athena (circa 490
BC). Unfortunately, the museum is under renovations and won’t be open until
the games begin. You can go there afterwards. It’s worth the visit.
Many cruise boats stop nearby and excursions are arranged
for a brief visit. Of course, it’s better not to be rushed. After all, how
often will you get there?
That’s a far cry from the distances and the hardship of
travel to the site during earlier times. Yet, with 45,000 people filling the
stadiums plus the officials, priests and athletes one can imagine the
spectacular sight they witnessed.
I suppose that if they could expend that much energy, the
modern Greeks are capable of completing the required building sites in time
for 2004. It should be a very special year. The games start on August 13th
and end on August 29th.
No matter how you get there I heartily recommend this site
as one of the most moving in Greece.
So let the cannons boom. Let the flame be lit. Let the
pigeons fly to symbolize international good will.
Let the games begin. Athens will be ready.
You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at:
Over the past few years, Professor
Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece,
Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of
Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the
globe including Italy and most of
China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters
from St.Petersburg to Moscow.
"He took a group to Greece and another to northern
Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour
groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They
winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico. His newly found spare time
is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His
current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders.. "So
You Want To Be A Tour Leader."
Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing
Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel
writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.
Keep reading his web for travel ideas. His next
novel HELLSTORM'S Folly,
will be available this fall. He now
lives in British Columbia.
www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at
(More about the writer.)