Travelling to Olympia, now and in 480 BC
Fun and (the) games
But every four years, at the second full moon after the summer solstice, Olympia itself – as well as the athletes of course – really jumps. If you arrive a bit early, you can watch potential competitors in training, hoping to be selected for their chosen events on the big day. The full programme includes sprint and middle distance running, the ‘heavy’ events: boxing, wrestling, all-in fighting; and field events: discus, javelin, long-jump. All the competitors are stark naked too – gymnasia are just what they say they are: ‘stark-naked training-grounds’. And on top of all that there are the equestrian events: horseracing, mule-cart racing, chariot-racing. With any luck you might see a spectacular chariot wreck. Of course the equestrian events are only for the rich – who sponsor the teams, the jockeys and the drivers. They don’t actually compete in person, but they get lots of kudos anyway. Poor boys can do very well in the running or boxing, mind you – and can then cash in on their success later on. But remember that all that victors at Olympia win is a symbolic prize of a crown of wild olive. You, though, will make heroes of them and you can rub shoulders with them in the huge parade and animal-sacrifice at Zeus’s massive ash-altar that mark the festival’s central act of communion between gods and men.
When you get home – by mule-cart for some of you, on horseback for the lucky few, but for most on foot – you can worship the victors, literally, as superhuman heroes. That is even (or especially) if they’ve got themselves killed, in the all-in fighting or whatever. Errosthe (fare well)!
Visiting Olympia today
One of the most delightful of Greece’s ancient sites, Olympia is today a day trip from Athens. That it is a glorious one rather than a hot, underwhelming slog is to do with two things: the efforts locals and firefighters made in 2007 to save the site from bush fires, and the ruins themselves.
Persevere with Olympia: the modern town is little more than a service centre for the ancient, and first impressions will be of souvenir shops and uninspiring restaurants. There’s better and more typical Greek fare on offer in the village of Floka, a mile or so up the hill.
The star attraction is south of the new town, across the Kladeos river. Set in wonderfully quiet and green surroundings, the Olympic site can absorb half a day. There are four museums to complete the theme of the day: one devoted to the ancient games, another to the modern one, a third tells the story of excavations and a fourth, the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, shows off some of the best finds. There’s a joint ticket for this and the site itself.
Even if you only see ancient Olympia, it will almost certainly prove a highlight of any tour of Greece’s historical treasures.
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There are comparable sites in Greece – Delphi notably – which will awe and educate, but you need to go to Mexico to find evidence of lost civilisations enjoying sport on this scale, particularly the ball courts of Monte Alban and Chichen Itza.