Where the Olympics Began

The Philippeion in Olympia, Greece, is beautiful
The Philippeion once contained many statutes

A visit to one of the world’s best archaeological sites, Olympia, Greece, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is about three and a half hours drive from Athens. It is where the Olympics first began as a running contest, later adding wrestling and other sports such as javelin.

The site dates back 10 centuries B.C. The Greeks started having the Olympic Games here every four years beginning around eight centuries B.C. and continuing until four centuries A.D. The site was first discovered the same year America was born in 1776, but excavation and research didn’t earnestly begin until the early 19th century.

Getting to the site is a challenge. The largest number of visitors arrive by cruise ships that stop at the tiny port of Katakolon, population 600, in the shadow of Mount Kronos of Greek mythology. Most cruise passengers are transported by bus to Olympia, about 45 minutes from Katakolon. On a busy day, Katakolon, normally a sleepy and quaint fisherman’s village struggles to handle the explosion of visitors that occurs when multiple cruise ships all dock for a day trip to see Olympia, disgorging tens of thousands of visitors. Katakolon had a railroad connection long before the railroad came to Athens, connecting the port to Olympia.

You can drive to Olympia, but I do not recommend driving in a foreign country when you cannot read the street signs. You can get a train or bus from Athens and there are numerous sightseeing tours out of Athens leaving daily. The closest airports to Olympia are at Patras and Kalamata, each about one hour away from the site by car.

Even before the Olympics started, Olympia was a place to pay homage to the Greek god Zeus. The Temple of Zeus there was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and used to house a huge gold and ivory statute of Zeus. The location was considered particularly peaceful, making it an ideal site for the initial Olympic Games.

Once you arrive at Olympia, you will see the ruins of the Palaestra, the Greek name for the wrestling school, and the gymnasium where the athletes worked out, frequently naked. Both of these words, still in use today, derive from the Greek heritage. Originally limited to free men from Greek city-states, eventually, any male citizen of Greece was allowed to compete in the Olympics. Winners were awarded with an olive branch. Women were generally not welcome at the games under penalty of death, although there were some exceptions eventually, which allowed women who could afford to own chariots and horses to attend.

Other ruins at this remarkable site include an Olympic sports stadium with a 45,000-person capacity, the largest in existence in its time and just slightly smaller than the Roman coliseum, which was built hundreds of years later. Sprinting contests were held here on the stadium’s long running track. If you are inclined, many visitors run in the footsteps of the original Olympians. Other significant ruins here include the Philippeion that once contained statutes of human heroes, such as Alexander the Great, as opposed to sculptures from mythology, such as the Temple of Hera, Zeus’s wife.

A highlight of Olympia is the Archaeological Museum there. Some of the pieces in this museum, a fraction of the size of the archaeological museum in Athens, are among the best-preserved examples of Greek and Roman civilization, including statues of Hermes and Nike.

Olympia is also close to several other significant sites to view Greek ruins, all within an hour’s drive. Classes in Greek cooking, visits to olive orchards and vineyards and tastings of the Greek liquor Ouzo are other tourist activities available, as well as hiking along the Alfeios River.

For the history enthusiast, amateur archaeologist and the average tourist with a thirst to learn more about Greek life, civilization and mythology, a visit to Olympia is a must.

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