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Ancient Greek Olympia: Site of Original Olympic Games

Olympia, Greece

The Olympic Games were started in 776 BC to unify the Greeks and strengthen their culture. The events — such as sprinting, boxing, and javelin and discus throwing — were held until AD 393. Today’s visitors can’t resist lining up on the original starting block.

Complete Video Script

The rugged, sparsely populated terrain of the Peloponnese, evokes ancient times, when Greeks considered this a mysterious and frightening land…a mythic world of terrifying creatures. No wonder it was here that Hercules was sent to perform most of his daunting labors.

Ancient athletes were tested here as well. The Sanctuary of Olympia was the birthplace of the Olympic Games. Despite the tourist crowds, it remains an evocative place, nestled among the shady trees. Wandering its extensive ruins, it's clear Olympia was much more than a stadium.

Local tour guide Niki Vlachou helps explain.

Rick: So, it’s called the “sanctuary” of Olympia?
Niki: Yes, but it was primarily a religious place dedicated to Zeus and the rest of the gods with temples all over and it was only open to people during the games for over 1,000 years.

The Temple of Zeus was magnificent in the fifth century BC and reminds us that the games were held in honor of the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon (or “world of gods”).

Niki: Inside this temple was that amazing statue of Zeus, which was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world. Gold and ivory towering in the temple that made the Greeks lose their minds by seeing Zeus alive in front of them. This was one of their chances to meet the god in person, as they thought.

Six centuries after Christ earthquakes sent its columns tumbling. Today they lie here as if to illustrate how Greek columns were stacks of fluted limestone drums held together with square pegs.

The popularity of the games grew rapidly, attracting athletes from throughout the Greek world to compete in an ever-increasing number of events — there was javelin, discus, boxing; there was a sprint of one stadium length, the two-stadium sprint, even two-stadium sprint naked with all your armor. The last of the ancient games were held in AD 393, not to be started again for 1,500 years.

Rick: So why the games?
Niki: To unify the Greeks, strengthen the Greek culture, and to also teach these young boys the military skills they needed. Plus, they had all these classrooms here to teach them the Greek philosophy.
Rick: So the Olympic Games actually made the Greek culture stronger.
Niki: The idea was that if the Greeks are to fight they better fight in the stadium and be united against the rest of the world.
Rick: It’s brilliant and this worked for 1,200 years.
Niki: Yes.

The most vivid remnant of the games is this — the original Olympic stadium. Visitors just can't resist the chance to line up on the marble starting blocks and imagine athletes from around the Greek world doing this same thing at those first games back in 776 BC.