Monday, February 22, 2010
Watching the Winter Olympics, starring cold and ice, made me long for Olympia, Greece, the stop on my cruise that followed Crete. After docking at the lovely port town of Katakolon, and driving through the scenic Kalamata countryside (covered with olive trees, just as you would imagine) we arrived at Olympia, birthplace of the Olympics.
Even before I learned that Olympia was a sacred site to the ancient Greeks, I felt the holiness in the air—something about the mountain mist, the quiet, the light. The Olympics were part of a festival that honored Zeus, and included processions, ceremonies, sacrifices and prayers as well as athletic contests. Games were held at Olympia as early as 776 B.C. and continued for more than 1,000 years. For each Olympiad a sacred truce was enacted to allow the athletes, spectators and pilgrims to travel safely to the site. The contests included footraces, discus and javelin, wrestling, boxing and equestrian events.
On our tour we saw the gymnasium, where athletes trained in the nude. “Think about that the next time you’re at the gym,” said our guide, Demetrios. Then we admired the Philippeion, (pictured above) a building Alexander the Great had built in honor of his father, and according to Demetrios, one of the most beautiful buildings in ancient Greece.
Most impressive to me was the imposing Temple of Zeus which once housed the gigantic gold and ivory statue of Zeus that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Though unfortunately the statue has disappeared without a trace, the size of the one pillar that remains standing (34 feet tall, 7 feet thick, weighing 9 tons!) allows you to imagine the grandeur of the original structure, worthy of the King of the Gods.
Temple of Zeus.
Temple of Zeus
After passing Hera’s altar, where the Olympic torch is lit for each modern Olympics, we paraded through the gateway to the stadium, where athletes competed as early as 2,500 years ago. The marble start and finish lines are still there, begging tourists to pose on them. Demetrios reluctantly allowed us to take photos, but only if we stood at the starting line, as the ancient Greeks would have.
Me behaving like a tourist.
As I watched the Olympics over the last two weeks, I thought of Olympia and the ideas from ancient Greece that live on: that sports can bring people together, can bring peace, at least temporarily; and that competition, which causes us to strive for greatness, pleases the gods.