I was so excited to be going to Olympus.  The home of the Gods.  Greek mythology.  My bubble was burst when I was told by a fellow student on the bus that morning, “Duh! It’s Olym-pia, not Olym-pus!” Oh.

    I was participating on a study abroad trip to Greece in May 2013. Not being a person gifted by the gods with athleticism, nor possessing the patience to just sit and observe other people doing something, watching the Olympics has rarely been on my list of life highlights.  The only time I have watched the Olympics with any interest was in high school, when a hockey player I had a crush on competed in Lillehammer.  

    While my enthusiasm waned slightly upon finding out that we were going to Olympia, once we arrived and began walking around, I was soon charmed by the beautiful scenery. The site lies near the river Alpheios, amid wooded hills. The complex feels hushed and sacred, as if you were visiting a cemetery. Perhaps this feeling of serenity emanates from this plot because it has been a place of peace since antiquity. It began as a sacred grove where Gaia (Gee-Ah) was worshipped (Mother Earth). She was replaced in time by the Olympian deities, such as Zeus and Hera. Often, games were part of the festivals.  In the 8th century B.C., three kings made a truce and organized the games as a symbol of this peace.  They were held every four years, with only free-born Greek men allowed to compete.  As our tour guide stated, the games were a time for “peace, union and brotherhood, not war.”

    The Olympia complex consisted of buildings for sporting events, and important temples to Hera and Zeus. There were small treasuries dedicated by cities. The Philippeon was a circular building dedicated to Zeus by Phillip II to celebrate his victory as an Olympic champion. Our guide mentioned, “There are two types of Macedonians. Slavic and Greek. Some try to doubt the Greekness of Alexander the Great, but his father was an Olympic champion and at this time, you had to be a Greek citizen to compete.” [1]

    While typically only men were allowed to be competitors or spectators at the Olympics, one woman was allowed on the grounds: the priestess of Demeter. She viewed the games from the north side of the stadium. Regilla, the wife of Herod Atticus (a distinguished Roman Senator who also funded the Odeon at the Acropolis) served as the priestess in the 2nd century. She had the Nymphaion erected, which was both a monument and a fountain. It was fed by an aqueduct constructed by Herod Atticus.

    Walking to the Stadium, I felt a thrill passing through the vaulted walkway called the Crytoporticus.  So many athletes had walked through there before, on their way to victory or defeat. I continued to feel awed as I stood upon the marble slabs of the starting line. How many had crouched here in ages past, praying for glory?

    A school group was there with us. This was a rare occasion that their presence added to my experience, rather than subtracted. The group of boys and girls raced from one end of the 192.27 meter stadium to the other. We cheered and clapped for the competitors, quickly falling into our roles as the spectators. A boy around thirteen won, and his teacher crowned him with a laurel wreath. While all in good fun, it made the ancient stadium come alive for a moment as we all enacted a race.

    Being there at the site of the ancient Olympics influenced me in an unexpected way. As a person that tends to favor the mind above all, being there made me reconsider my life. Perhaps the ancient Olympians were on to something: it is necessary to not only develop the mind, but the body as well.  

   [1] There must be some tension, or perceived cultural differences between Greece and Macedonia for the guide to mention this detail.  A few days later, while on the cruise ship, a fellow student asked a server if he was Greek.  He was very affronted and said, “No! I’m Macedonian.”  She asked him if that wasn’t the same, and he replied, “It’s very different,” and walked off in a huff.