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Travel - Touring the Peloponnese

Where the culture of Ancient Greece merges with the present and casts its spell on the future Olympics



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Despite the sorry state of the buildings we could easily have spent more than a day exploring the ruins. It's the sort of place you want to visit with a good guide in hand and time to sit and reflect on how the history of this ancient site continues to influence our modern world.

No one is sure when Greek athletes first set aside their spears and gathered at Olympia to compete. The games of 776 BC are traditionally regarded as the beginning of the first Olympiad, the Greek system of reckoning time based on a four year period between Olympic Games. At first men's sprinting was the only event and most of the contestants were local. Women were not only barred from competition they were forbidden to watch. As more events were added the Games grew to include all of the Greek city-states and eventually athletes from other lands. But as Roman influence increased the religious and political influence of the Sanctuary began to fade and the original purpose of the competition was lost.

A low point in the decline of the Games came in 67 AD when Nero, the tyrannical Emperor of Rome, entered the chariot race. Better known for fiddling to the accompaniment of flames than for his athletic prowess Nero decreed that he be given a six horse handicap over the other competitors. Despite this advantage and the fact that he crashed half way through and never finished, he was declared the winner. Only Zeus and Nero know what might have befallen the judges had they been honest.

Corruption eventually consumed the Games and in A.D. 394, during a purge of pagan festivals, they were abolished. A few years later the Christian Emperor Theodosius II ordered the temples of Olympia demolished.

For 1,500 years the Olympic Games ceased to exist. The remains of the ancient temples were further destroyed by earthquakes and eventually buried by debris from floods and landslides. It was not until 1896, after French and German archaeologists began to excavate the ruins, that the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin became fascinated with the ancient Games and helped organize their renewal in Athens.

Only eight nations competed in those first Modern Olympics. Since then, with the exception of cancellations during World Wars I and II, each successive Olympiad has seen the Games grow to a size and complexity that Zeus himself could never have imagined.