Everyone knows the modern Olympic Games originated from the ancient Greek sport game of the same name. But few know the Olympic Games were one of the four Pan-Hellenic Games held in classical Greece.
The Olympic Games were held in Olympia, Elis every four years, in order to honour Zeus. The Pythian Games were held two years after the Olympic Games in Delphi to honour Apollo. The Nemean Games were held in Nemea, Corinthia to celebrate Heracles. The Isthmian Games were held in Isthmia to pray to Poseidon.
Why you should visit Olympia
As with most ancient Greek ruins, there is not much left apart from some inscriptions and some ressemblance of buildings. Yet to be at a site where a human civilisation reached such a height of philosophy, culture, knowledge and science, in itself is a wonderful experience.
The Olympic Games begun around 776 BC – more than 2700 years ago – at this very spot, to worship the king of gods, Zeus himself. People from all over the Greek world (there was no notion of country in the modern sense, but cultural realm) came to witness this huge event.
Olympia is not to be confused with Mount Olympus, which is the highest mountain in mainland Greece. It is called as such because the sanctuary where Zeus was worshiped recalls the home in the clouds where the gods live.
Use your imagination: The Statue of Zeus and Lots and Lots of Male Nudity
As the Olympic Games were held to worship Zeus, there was of course the celebrated giant statue of Zeus. According to ancient accounts, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the world, this giant seated sculpture, measuring about 13 metres tall, was covered in ebony, ivory and gold. It was the work of the Greek sculptor Phidias around 435 BC. While you may still be able to visit the Sanctuary of Zeus, the statue has long been destroyed around 5th century AD. Even Phidias’ workshop was discovered at the site, where archaeologists found a cup with the inscription “ΦΕΙΔΙΟΥ ΕΙΜΙ” – meaning “I belong to Phidias“.
You may already have known, athletes competed completely in the nude. You will see some of the glorious nudity in the museum located at the site. But nudity was precisely the mark of civilisation in ancient Greece as it is today.
Classical Greeks considered nudity the ability to appreciate one’s own human nature – that can only come about through advanced level of thinking about life, society and humanity.
Barbarians, like the constantly invading Slavs up north, were always clambering to be clothed. I find this very enlightened: modern religions that tell people to cover up – even the heads and faces of women – are always those thought up by backwards desert nomads.
What you can see in Olympia
What I found amazing was the stadium that is still intact. The rectangular field, the surrounding slopes on which spectators sat and cheered, the starting and finishing lines in marble, and the arbitrator’s stand: they are all still there.
You will also find some stone benches, most likely for the VIPs.
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia
The Archaeological Museum of Olympia is of course a must-see. Apart from the ruins, these are the most spectacular reminders of the level of civilisation the Greeks achieved 3000 years ago.
Below are the highlights which I really appreciated at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.
The sculptured ornaments from the Temple of Zeus – Two pediments of the temple with 42 figures, most likely from the 5th century BC.
Hermes of Praxiteles – this is one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art. Hermes, perfectly sculpted carries carrying the infant Dionysos, dates from 330 BC.
Nike of Paionios – another masterpiece of ancient Greek art. Just look at the drapes. Dates from 421 BC.
*Note how the sculptor even succeeded in carving this man’s penis bulge through his clothes.
Staying in Olympia
Not many tourists stay overnight in Olympia. This is because the town is too small and Olympia is considered by most worthy only of a day trip. On the other hand, this makes it so pleasant to stay in Olympia! It is completely free of noisy and rude tourists, leaving you the opportunity to truly engage with the locals.
Tsoureka 1, Ancient Olympia 270 65, Greece
+30 2624 022188
Aimiliou koyntse 2, Greece
+30 2624 023620
The food here is gorgeous and very reasonably priced, compared to the tourist rip-offs along the main street.
Πραξιτέλη Κονδύλη 26, Archea Olimpia 270 65, Greece
+30 2624 029101
If you are looking to buy replicas of ancient Greek art. Forget about the terrible shops in Athens. Here in Olympia, there is a very learned old man who speaks several European languages and he is one of the handful in Greece who specialise in reproducing ancient Greek artifacts using the very methods used by the ancients.