The original Olympics began as a small regional festival in the 11th century, which was dedicated to the God Zeus. But the origins of the town itself are Mycenaean who worshipped the Goddess Rhea, sister of Cronus and father of Zeus. If you know your Mythology you may remember that Cronus was told that he would be dethroned by his own children and he devoured five of the sons Rhea had given birth to. When Zeus was born she gave a rock to Cronus and he ate that instead. Zeus survived and later dispatched his father to the underworld and Zeus became top God and founder of the Olympic games.
The first Olympic games were held in 776 BC and reached their height of popularity in 576 BC. The festival was open to only Greek born men but later Romans were allowed to compete most likely because they were running the Greek world by then. Slaves and women were not even allowed to be spectators and women caught sneaking in were thrown off a cliff. The events included foot races, wrestling, discus, javelin, long-jump, horse and chariot racing, and a type of boxing called pancratium. There were not only atheletic events but also writing, poetry and history readings, plus business transactions and treaties were made between leaders of city-states.
Spectators were able to see all the events and not just the ones the Americans were in and had a good chance of winning. The games were banned in 426 by the emperor Theodosius II because they were pagan, and the temples were destroyed.
Because of the destruction of the site by Theodosius and several earthquakes, there is not much left in the way of buildings besides foundations, steps and columns but these are impressive and are in a beautiful setting near the Kladeos river. The area is called The Altis which means the area sacred to Zeus and the reason there is anything left is because the flooding of the river buried it until 1875 when archaeologists rediscovered it.
The most outstanding building is the 5th Century Temple of Zeus, built by Livon, which contained the 12 meter high statue by Phideas, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which was removed to Constantinople by Theodocious and destroyed in a fire.
The stadium which could seat at least 20,000 people and was the largest of its kind. The Temple of Hera is where the Olympic flame is lit from the sun and then taken by runners to light the torch wherever the games are being held, a tradition which dates all the way back to 1936AD. Even today you will notice runners using the area for fun and for practice. The museum is across the road and contains the 4th Century BC statue of Hermes by Praxiteles, familiar to anyone who has taken art history, plus a number of other finds from the excavations including the Nike of Victory by Paeonios. According to Olympic legend she used to come down from the sky to hand a palm leaf to the winners.
The entire archaeological site of Olympia won't make you stare in awe and marvel at the ancient architecture however it is a beautiful place to visit and unlike most archaeological sites in Greece which are exposed to the sun and surrounded by vegetation that barely reaches your ankles, Olympia is shaded by tall trees and walking through the ruins can be a peaceful and profound experience. Olympia is a place you can visit any time of year and if you can come here when the rest of the tourists are gone you will find it even more enjoyable.
Click here to download a 3D model of Philippeon, compatible with Google Earth.
Click here to download a 3D model of the Stadium entrance, compatible with Google Earth.