The Olympic Games, the world’s most famous athletic institution, trace their origins in Olympia, which is situated in the evergreen valley of Alfios River in the Peloponnese Peninsula.
One would expect Olympia to be related to Mt. Olympus, yet it is a different place. It is a fertile plain located some hundreds of miles away from Mt. Olympus, dotted with gentle hills and covered with olive trees and cypresses. In this sunny plain in antiquity Mother Earth, the Goddess of Fertility, was originally worshiped, before Olympia came to be known as the Sanctuary of Zeus the Olympian.
The Olympic Games were the greatest athletic festival of antiquity. They were held every four years in Olympia in honor of Zeus, the supreme god of the ancient Greeks. As the fame of the Games traveled beyond the grounds of the sanctuary, thousands of people came from all over the ancient Greek world to watch them, along with the athletes who came to compete. A visit to Olympia was also a pilgrimage to the most sacred sanctuary of Zeus. The famous chryselephantine statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of Antiquity, made by Phidias during the Classical Period, was housed in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia.
Olympia was a sanctuary, not a city where people lived. All judges and organizers would come from the nearby town of Elis. According to tradition, it was King Iphitos from Elis who introduced the Sacred Truce among all Greek city-states during the Olympic Games. The Sacred Truce allowed both athletes and spectators to travel safely to Olympia for the Games. The truce was never violated.
To be an Olympic victor back then was the greatest honour in a man’s life. The reward and symbol of victory was a wreath, made out of the sacred branches of an olive tree.
The earliest Olympic Games recorded took place in the year 776 BC. The ancient games came to an end in 395 AD. For over a thousand years young athletes competed in the ancient Stadium of Olympia for “excellence”. Before competing, the athletes anointed themselves with olive oil; their nude bodies were shinning under the sun as they ran, wrestled, threw the discus and performed the long jump. Those flawless athletic bodies became the source of inspiration for the ancient Greek sculptors, whose timeless creations we admire today. One of the masterpieces of ancient Greek sculpture is the statue of Hermes of Praxiteles, which can be seen today in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.
The ancient Olympic Games inspired the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who revived them in modern times. Pierre de Coubertin’s world vision was realized in 1896, when the first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens, and since then are held every four years in a different country. Today, before every Olympics, the Olympic flame is lit in ancient Olympia. The flame ceremony is followed by the torch relay, the transfer of the flame to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, where it is delivered to the representative of the host country of the Olympics.
Nowadays, in ancient Olympia not only can one still marvel at the original ancient stadium, the remains of the Temple of Zeus and his great sanctuary, but one can also visit the local archaeological museum, where masterpieces of ancient Greek art are displayed, the ancient Olympic Games Museum as well as the modern Olympic Games Museum, with interesting documents and testimonies regarding the modern Olympic Games.
The popularity of the site of Olympia resulted in the development of the modern village of Olympia next to the excavations. Although the modern of village Olympia is rather recent, it is colorful and situated in a practical location, as it is in walking distance from the site. One can also explore the nearby rural area known for its charming villages, olive cultivations, wine making, animal farming and cheese production.