Ancient Olympia, the place in Greece where the Olympic Games took place from 776BC until 393AD
Ancient Olympia is a site of particular historical and ideological significance.
In ancient times, it was the sacred site where the ancient Olympic Games were held. The sanctuary of Ancient Olympia, one of the most important sanctuaries of the ancient world, was situated in the lush green valley formed by the river Alpheios and its tributary Kladeos. The sanctuary’s excellent geographical situation led Pindar to call Ancient Olympia “the most beautiful” site in Greece.
The sanctuary of Ancient Olympia is linked to many different myths related to the divinities that were worshipped there and the heroes who founded the Olympic Games.The ancient Olympic Games held a prominent position in the conscience of the ancient world and Ancient Olympia, the site of their celebration, represented a major geographical destination of particular religious and ideological value. The sacred precinct included the stadium, the hippodrome, temples, sports facilities and buildings for the pilgrims.
The stadium where the Olympic Games were held, was the most important site of the sanctuary and the temple of Zeus where the famous statue of the god was kept, was the most important temple. The sanctuary of Olympia was a place of religious worship and a Pan-Hellenic athletic centre that contributed to the national awareness of the ancient Greeks.
Ancient Olympia achieved great fame throughout the period of the Olympic Games and was considered to be the “navel of Hellenism” and the most important spiritual, athletic and artistic centre of the ancient world.
When the Games stopped, the sanctuary declined and was later destroyed by barbarian invasions and natural causes. It remained, however, a place of historical and ideological reference until the 19th century when archaeological research brought to light the ancient artefacts. It never ceased ever since to be a pole of inspiration, research and reference for archaeologists, historians, travelers, those who created the Olympic Movement, simple people, its modern citizens and those who choose to share its legacy and be reflected in its past.
The most important confirmation of these bonds with the past of Ancient Olympia is reflected in the modern ceremony of the lighting of the Olympic Flame and the decision to create the International Olympic Academy in the place where the ancient Olympic Games were born, actions that keep alive its legacy and its history.
The Archaeological site of Ancient Olympia
The first ruins in Ancient Olympia were brought to light in 1829 through the excavations carried out by the French Archaeological Mission in Peloponese. Systematic digging was started by the German Archaeological School in 1875.
Today, one enters the site by crossing the bridge over Kladeos river. Going down into Altis we find the ancient Gymnasium to the right, only partly excavated, and the Palaestra next to it. To the left are the ruins of the buildings of Prytaneion, Philippeion, Heraeon and Pelopion. The Heraeon (temple of Hera) goes back at the beginning of the 6th century B.C. and is considered to be the oldest temple in Olympia. Inside the temple were many votive offerings, and around the mid-2nd c. A.D. Pausanias saw there the disk on which the holy truce agreement had been inscribed.
The famous statue of Hermes by Praxiteles was found here. Next to the Heraeon is the Metroon and the pedestals for the statues of Zeus, which were called Zanes and were paid for with the fines imposed on the athletes who violated the regulations of the contests.
Turning to the right we come to the Echo Colonnade or Sevenfold Echo and the votive column erected by King Ptolemeus Philadelphus and his sister Arsinoe, and then to the temple of Zeus. It was a large temple of unsurpassed grandeur, built as a Doric hexastyle measuring 27.66 m. by 64.12 m. and adorned with sculptured decoration. The eastern pediment depicts the preparations for the chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops; the western pediment shows the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs. The twelve metopes of the nave above its entrances in the eastern and western side, being six in each side, were decorated images of the twelve Labours of Hercules. Inside the temple was the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, made by Pheidias and praised like no other creation of classical Greece as a work of unsurpassed skill and grandeur. The triangular base for the statue of Nike of Paeonios has survived in front of the temple.
Lying south of the temple are the Bouleuterion, the Leonidaion and, to the west, the workshop of Pheidias, the Theikoleon (Priests House) and the Hellenistic and Roman the swimming pool and baths.
Passing through the gate of Crypt we enter the Stadium, with the hill of Kronos to the left and the river Alpheios to the right and back. The track is 192.27m in length. There never were any seats of stone or marble, except for a few stone seats for the Hellanodikai and the marble altar of Demeter, reserved for the priestess of the goddess – the only woman who had the right to attend the games. Also surviving are the stone slabs with the grooves used as a star ting line for the races.
“I feel that this is the ideal place to reflect on the evolution of our society. We are in a haven of peace and balance, where centuries remain engraved on the stones, the meanders of the Alpheios river, the beauty of the vegetation and the serenity which pervades this unique place, Olympia, where sport started on its most glorious and finest course.”
Juan Antonio SAMARANCH (IOC President, 1980-2001)
The Museums in Ancient Olympia
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia, one of the most important museums in Greece, presents the long history of the most celebrated sanctuary of antiquity, the sanctuary of Zeus, father of both gods and men, where the Olympic games were born. The museum's permanent exhibition contains finds from the excavations in the sacred precinct of the Altis dating from prehistoric times to the Early Christian period. Among the many precious exhibits the sculpture collection, for which the museum is most famous, the bronze collection, the richest collection of its type in the world, and the large terracottas collection, are especially noteworthy. The museum building comprises exhibition rooms, auxiliary spaces and storerooms. The vestibule and twelve exhibition rooms contain objects excavated in the Altis. The auxiliary spaces (lavatories) are located in the museum's east wing; a separate building between the museum and the archaeological site houses a book and souvenir shop. Finally, part of the east wing and the basement are dedicated to storage and conservation of terracottas, bronze, stone, mosaics and minor objects.
The Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games
In view of the Olympic Games "ATHENS 2004" the abandoned "Old Museum of Olympia", as it was informally called after the removal of its exhibits, is undergoing complete restoration and on March 24, 2004 it officially begins to function as the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games of Antiquity. The exhibition deals with important chapters - milestones in the over a thousand-year history of the Olympia and the other pan-Hellenic games (Pythia, Isthmia, Nemea and Panathenaia) such as: the prehistory of the sport, the beginning of the games in Olympia, Zeus and his worship, Elis and its role in the organization of the games and the preparation of the athletes, women and sports, the events, the winners of the games, etc. One of the peculiarities of the Museum is that its archaeological exhibits come not only from Olympia but also from many more important archaeological sites, historical sites and ancient cities of Greece. The exhibition at the Old Museum of Olympia is the necessary continuation of the story of the Sanctuary of Zeus of Olympia, which is told by the exhibition at the New Archaeological Museum of Olympia.
Museum of the Modern Olympic Games
The Museum of Modern Olympic Games in Olympia was inaugurated in 1961 by the philatelist George Papastefanou-Provatakis who decided to exhibit his personal collection of souvenirs and memorabilia from modern Olympic Games. From 1961 to 1972 the Museum was called «Athlofiloteliko Olympic Museum». On the 28th of March, 1964, the Museum was donated to the Hellenic Olympic Committee and Papastefanou was appointed director. Papastefanou who was inspired by the Olympic Spirit, devoted his life to the development of the Museum and gradually his personal collection was enriched with other items. In 1968 the construction of a new building began and on July 27, 1972 the new Museum of Modern Olympic Games, with a surface of 400 m2 was inaugurated. The Museum of Modern Olympic Games includes rare photographs, medals, certificates, stamps and other artifacts of modern Olympic history. The museum is currently under renovation.
Hermes of Praxiteles
The statue of Hermes is one of the most magnificent art pieces of the ancient world. It is a symbol of beauty and aesthetics. It is the work of sculptor Praxiteles and, as Pausanias informs us, it depicts the god Hermes holding the infant Dionysos in his left arm. It was discovered during the excavations in Olympia, in 1877 by German archaeologists.
Made from Parian marble it stands 2,10m in height. It is thought to be an original of the great sculptor and it is dated to ca. 330 B.C., reflecting the features of that period. The image of the god exudes peace and relaxation and his body has athletic characteristics that reflect harmony and eurhythmy.
The Hermes of Praxiteles is one of the exhibits of the arhaelogical Museum of Olympia with the highest visit rate and is considered as the quintessential model of male beauty.
Nike of Paionios
The statue depicts a winged woman. An inscription on the base states that the statue was dedicated by the Messenians and the Naupactians for their victory against the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), in the Archidamian (Peloponnesian) war prabably in 421 B.C. It is the work of the sculptor Paionios of Mende in Chalkidiki, who also made the acroteria of the Temple of Zeus.
Nike, cut from Parian marble, has a height of 2,15m, but with the tips of her (now broken) wings would have reached 3m. In its completed form, the monument with its triangular base (8,81m high) would have stood at the height of 10,92m. giving the impression of Nike triumphantly descending from Olympos. It dates from 421 B.C.
You can admire this exceptional statue at the Archaelogical Museum of Olympia.
The Legacy of
The Olympic Games in Ancient Olympia
The roots of the Olympic Spirit can be found in the ancient Greek civilization. In Ancient Greece, sport was part of man’s overall education which cultivated in a balanced and harmonious way his intellectual, mental and physical faculties.
The Olympic Games were held from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D. every four years in Olympia. They formed an integral part of a way of life, a cultural experience. Their significance compared to the other panhellenic meetings and contests between city states was so great that the four-year period between the games was called an Olympiad and served as a chronological method. During that period, the youth prepared themselves physically, morally and spiritually so as to reach the crest of their abilities at the epitome of the Olympiad, the Olympic Games.
The palestras and gymnasia, which were both sports and educational facilities, were to be found in every city, next to the temples and market places. Socrates, Aristotle and many of the famous philosophers of ancient Greece taught in the gymnasia, while Plato was himself an eminent athlete. The process of education continued after puberty, contributing to the learning of citizens and the life-long development of their mind.
Young people were taught arts, philosophy and music; at the same time they exercised their body in pursuit of the ideal of “kalokagathia”, virtue and beauty. In a similar way they cultivated the spirit of fair competition and sportsmanship, while seeking to achieve harmony in everything.
In accordance with tradition, the origins of sport and the Olympic games in particular are to be found in prehistoric times. The gods and heroes of Greek mythology were the first to take part in contests, becoming role models for all Greeks.
The conquest of victory at the Olympic Games was the highest honor for athletes and their city. Olympic victors were considered heroes. The cities tore down their walls when the Olympic victors returned to their homeland, to show how secure they felt to have among their citizens Olympic winners whose feats were extolled in poems and sculptures.
More than 40,000 people, athletes, philosophers, politicians, artists, poets and other pilgrims travelled from all over the Greek world to Olympia to watch the Games. The protection of athletes and spectators during their hard journey was guaranteed by the holy truce when all hostilities and warfare ceased.
Olympia, as a neutral and sacred place, was able to promote in a unique way, beyond the trivia of everyday life, the ideals of peace, freedom, equality and mutual respect.
The thinkers of the Enlightenment looked to the ancient Greek spirit for inspiration and guidance. It was this civilisation, as it was expressed though the Olympic Games that Baron Pierre de Coubertin and those before and after him contributed to the realisation of this unique vision, fostered by educational pursuits, wanted to revive.
For many years, there was only one event – the “stadion” foot-race (1 stadion = 192 m.). More events were added from 724 B.C. onwards: the diavlos race (2 stadia), the “dolichos” (24 stadia), wrestling, the pentathlon (708 B.C.), boxing (668 B.C.), chariot racing, the pancration (648 B.C.), equestrian sports, boys’ contests, etc. Equally old, it seems, were the Heraea – athletic contests for young women. The prizes were useful presents initially, but from 752 B.C. the award was a wreath of “kotinos”, i.e. wild olive.
The Games were administered by the Hellanodikai, eminent men of Elis, who were aided by the ‘alytai’ and the staff bearers. At first, the Games lasted one day, but when more events were added, the duration was extended to five days – three days for the contests and the first and fifth day reserved for ceremonies and sacrifices.
The glory of Olympia lived on for some 1,200 years and was so great as to prompt the famous poet Pindar to write: “Just as there is nothing stronger or more brilliant than the light of the sun, so there is no contest that is greater or more brilliant than the one in Olympia”.
Changes in the character of the Games
Several factors and historical events contributed to the change in the character of the Games. Professionalism, a desire for material benefits and a considerable emancipation of the games from religious dominance and violations of the truce had already appeared by the end of the 5th century B.C. However, the games continued under the authority of the sanctuary of Olympia, and an Olympic victory was still the most important milestone in one’s life. When Greece was incorporated into the Roman Empire (27 B.C.), the games were open to Roman officials, emperors even, and eventually to all citizens of the vast dominion; Egyptians, Spaniards, Syrians, Armenians and others are often among the Olympic winners, which means that the Games in Olympia were no longer merely panhellenic – they had become universal.
An order by Theodosius I in 393/4 A.D. signaled the end of the games. This ban was ratified by Theodosius II in 424 A.D. The athletic pulse of Greece ceased to beat every four years and Olympia was ruined by earthquakes, fires, floods and suffered the ravages of barbarian plunderers and invaders. Olympia was no more. However, its immortal spirit, its ideology and the philosophy of the Olympic Games survived and were passed on through modern Greece and Pierre de Coubertin to the entire modern world. The Olympic Games were revived in Athens in 1896 and continue to this day with the participation of athletes from all nations.
The Spirit of
According to the Olympic Movement’s modern conception, ancient Greece is interpreted as a source of ideas which are projected on today’s present in order to confirm, on the one hand, the link between ancient and modern sport and, on the other, as a field of reference on the ideas and values of a sacred past.
The concepts of kalokagathia (beautiful and virtuous), fair play and beauty were the prominent element of the ancient sporting spirit. The famous admonition of Peleas to his son Achilles and of Hippolochus to his son Glaucus before they left for Troy “forever excelling and prevailing over all others” determines the attitude of the ancient Greeks towards life and ideals.
The purpose of exercise in Antiquity was to build “beautiful and virtuous citizens” and “perfect men” who would offer their services to the city that had given them prominence. Sport in ancient times was not an end in itself but a lifelong education.
The gymnasia and the palestras gradually evolved into general education institutions whose aim was to ensure the overall education of youth. At the same time, the spirit of competition and emulation that prevailed in the sports arena impregnated all the activities of the ancient Greeks and the great achievements of sport and civilization were the result of the predominance of the competition spirit.
The objective of competition was to lead man to physical and mental fulfillment. During Antiquity, athletes were considered as ideal models of beauty, health and strength. Nudity in ancient times was connected to physical exercise and gave its name to gymnastics and to the place where exercise was practiced, i.e. the Gymnasium. Nudity represented a major element for ancient art, sculpture in particular. Artists studied the well-trained naked bodies of the athletes, which they considered as ideal models of beauty.
Ancient Greek society converted simple exercise into a supreme physical, mental and cultural activity and created the type of citizen-athlete who left his mark on ancient civilization.
The spirit of ancient sport never ceased to inspire the modern Olympic Movement, which is looking for ideological and spiritual connections with Antiquity through the paths of mythology, history and archaeological sites and monuments.
The Olympic Spirit
Pierre de Coubertin highlighted the spiritual dimension of the Olympic Games and the Olympic values from his first speech on the revival of the Olympic Games.
The dissemination of the Olympic values to education and society is considered of utmost importance by the International Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Academy.
The spiritual dimension of the Olympic Games underpins the athletic, ethical, and social education of young people worldwide.
Respect for pluralism in sport, as part of the Olympic Movement’s cultural diversity, is the dominant value of the Olympic Games. Moreover, the Olympic Games are a great example of the peaceful social coexistence of athletes from different backgrounds.
Olympism’s general philosophy challenges us to exercise the principles of peace and fair play to create a peaceful society. All societies and political systems worldwide recognize the need to preserve and disseminate the values of the Olympic spirit.
With the support of the International Olympic Committee, the International Olympic Academy sets the framework for disseminating Greek excellence and Olympic values over time through international educational programs and events for members of the Olympic family and beyond.