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“At its heart the Ancient Olympic Games was a religious festival held in a religious sanctuary,” Paul Christesen, professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth College, USA, explained.
As Christesen went on to say, “it was not just a matter of playing sports”. And central to this concept was the site itself. Olympia lay on the north-western corner of the Peloponnese.
Zeus, King of the Greek Gods, was said to have taken up residence in Olympia around 1200BC when the Eleans conquered the surrounding area. The fearsome deity marked his ascension by hurling a thunderbolt into the sacred grove from his home atop Mount Olympus.
The city state of Elis, the administrative centre of which was about a day’s walk north from Olympia, ran the Games throughout the vast majority of its life cycle, with the Eleans seizing full control from their local rivals the Pisatans in 572BC. Despite the stadium accommodating more than 40,000 people during the height of the Games’ popularity in the second century AD, it always remained a deeply rural setting.
“We know that they actually planted the stadium with wheat,” Christesen said. “It was a big empty space that wasn’t being used most of the time, so except in the run-up to the Games, when they got it all cleaned up, it was just a wheat field.”
From the first edition in 776BC until 550BC, the Games took place among the sanctuary itself. The sacred olive tree of Zeus, from which the victory wreaths were cut, marked the finishing line for all races. The first stadium, a simple affair using the natural embankments of the surrounding hills, remained within the deified area too. The discovery of more than 150 wells dating to this time indicates that even this early in the life of the Olympic Games, they attracted considerable attention.
By the mid fourth century BC the third incarnation of the stadium was built. Spacious and with the look and feel of a more modern venue, spectator attendance grew by around 50%. The position of the stadium had been shifted, with events no longer finishing at the altar of Zeus.
However, the site lost none of its religious potency during the vast majority of the 1000-plus years of the Ancient Games, its diversity being key to its survival.
“The Greeks were aggressively polytheistic,” said Christesen. “So while Olympia is a sanctuary to Zeus we know that he wasn’t the only deity worshipped at the site. There were over 70 different altars, you could sacrifice to pretty much anyone you wanted to.”
While the Eleans maintained a permanent presence at Olympia, conducting monthly sacrifices, the site turned, for one week per year, from an essentially peaceful idyll into the mad, riotous centre of Greece.
“Anyone who wanted to get a big audience from all over the Greek world showed up in Olympia. Painters, artists, orators all went there to put their wares on display,” Christesen said.
“We know there was total chaos for a week because anyone who wanted to raise their profile, this was the place and time to do it.”
The fourth incarnation of the stadium came in the first century as, fuelled by the return of chariot racing to the programme in AD17, the popularity of the Games soared. Interest reached a pinnacle in the following century and the fifth and final renovation took place.
Throughout these reincarnations the length of the track in the stadium remained constant. Stories abound as to why it always measured 600ft/192.2m, with the most enchanting being that this was the distance the hero Hercules could run on a single breath.
As well as competition, training took place at Olympia. At first this happened outdoors but during the Hellenistic period (323BC-31BC) the palestra and the gymnasium were built. Home to practitioners of wrestling, boxing, pankration and the long jump, the palestra’s main feature was a large, square inner-courtyard. It was flanked by colonnades and had an extensive bathing system in the adjoining rooms. The gymnasium was an elongated rectangle with space for both the javelin and discus throwers to do their thing. Both buildings were centres of intellectual debate and learning, with philosophers and teachers taking advantage of the shade and abundance of young minds.
By the Roman period these training facilities, along with the rest of the site, had, quite apart from the religious aspect, become a year-round tourist attraction.
“People put up big fancy artworks and dedications, so it became a famous site to go see Greek art,” Christesen said. “Certainly by the Roman period there were people making a living as guides to the site.”
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