On the beaten track

Miles away from Athens lie the ruins of ancient Olympia. Frank Partridge goes in search of a sporting legend
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The Independent Travel

The ancient field where the first Olympic athletes earned their laurels, and the steel and concrete crucible where the events of the 28th modern Games will take place this summer are separated by only 200 miles. But tucked away in an obscure corner of the western Peloponnese, near the confluence of two rivers below a wooded hill, Olympia feels half a world away from Athens.

The ancient field where the first Olympic athletes earned their laurels, and the steel and concrete crucible where the events of the 28th modern Games will take place this summer are separated by only 200 miles. But tucked away in an obscure corner of the western Peloponnese, near the confluence of two rivers below a wooded hill, Olympia feels half a world away from Athens.

Here, the Greeks found a way of organising trials of strength, skill, speed and stamina between the best of their warriors which, for the first time in recorded history did not necessarily conclude with broken bodies strewn across the field of combat. Once every four years, during the first full moon in August, weapons were laid aside in favour of the javelin and discus.

Down the centuries on either side of the birth of Christ, the five-day festival developed into much more than a spot of running and throwing. There was chariot and horse-racing, long jumping and wrestling, and a fearsome activity known as the pancratium - a bare-knuckled competition which presumably satisfied the bloodlust of those city-state warriors impatient to return to the real thing. The Games survived for more than a millennium, but although the censorious Romans brought the curtain down at the end of the 4th century AD, the principles of sporting competition that were codified in Olympia have endured to this day, virtually intact.

You can't say the same about Olympia itself. To those of us who are not scholars of archaeology, bringing the world's first Olympic village to life makes heavy demands on the imagination. Stones as old as these are entitled to lie down and rest undisturbed, keeping their secrets to themselves. But in a place of such significance, there is no earthly chance of that. So every book on the complex, every diagram on the tourist trail, includes an elaborate reconstruction of what the complex might once have been like.

The size of the place suggests more of a town than a village, with the excavated remains of two dozen substantial buildings spread around the valley. But what was it all for? This set of broken colonnades, you are told, traces the outline of the palaestra, where athletes and wrestlers undressed, bathed, anointed their bodies with oil and powdered themselves with dust. Above, say the guides, there once stood the gigantic temple of Zeus, three times the size of the Parthenon, with a gold and ivory statue so tall (40 feet) that most contemporary observers contented themselves with describing the throne rather than the sculpted features of the king of gods himself.

And you have to take their word for it, because time, politics, war, some opportunistic recycling by the locals in need of building materials, at least two cataclysmic earthquakes and one overwhelming flood have brought the whole lot tumbling down, leaving a handful of experts with their trowels and theodolites to reassemble a monumental jigsaw puzzle. Even today, more than a century after the site's rediscovery, some sections remain unexplored.

As gaggles of tour groups traipse behind their multilingual guides from one relic to another, patient men work quietly inside roped-off areas, making intricate measurements. One white-bearded archaeologist supervises the positioning of marble blocks on a section of what might have been a temple near what was almost certainly the gymnasium.

"Are you planning to rebuild the whole thing, like they did with the Minoan temple at Knossos in Crete?" I ask him. "Certainly not. No. Never," he replies. It seems that Olympia will only ever be restored to the point where it hints at its past glories, leaving the rest to our imagination. That is, until you arrive at the main arena itself. The riot of random stones suddenly funnels you through an arch to look upon a scene as heart-stopping as one's first view of the Maracana in Rio or the San Siro in Milan.

It's an almost featureless rectangular space, longer but narrower than a football field, with grassy banks on all four sides overlooking a flat area with strips of marble a shade under 200m apart. Judges were the only spectators granted stone seats, on a raised platform on the south side. The rest of the 45,000 spectators, strictly male, had to sit on the grass. With no advertisement hoardings, scoreboard or floodlights, the only other landmark is a small altar opposite the judges' section.

On the face of it, then, not a great deal to look at, but striding out along that well-beaten track, feeling the morning sun on my face, I suddenly had one of those boyhood fantasies, and was transported to an ancient Olympic final, rubbing shoulders with the best runners in the known world. There's an indefinable magic about this place of athletic pilgrimage.

The exclusion of women from the Olympic movement, which continued pretty much until Fanny Blankers-Koen took an improbable haul of gold back to the Netherlands from London in 1948, was possibly connected with the abandonment of the male loin cloth for long races after 720BC, although it seems hard to believe that the local womenfolk would not have sneaked a look from nearby Kronos Hill, which overlooks the site.

At the foot of the hill is the mausoleum containing the heart of the French Baron Pièrre de Coubertin, who inspired the revival of the Games in the late 19th century. This is the spot where, on 25 March, a parabolic dish will be used to capture the sun's rays and light the Olympic flame that will be taken to Athens, and where it will return to be extinguished at the end of the Games.

Back on the track, wild fantasy will be replaced by the real thing in August. The Games organisers are staging the finals of the shotput here, although how the archaeologists view the prospect of a mass media invasion to record the event does not bear thinking about. There are only six months to go, and in that time they're planning to re-route the main road and build car parks, shops and public walkways to accommodate the influx of visitors.

It's much the same story in Athens, but this nation knows a thing or two about putting on Olympic Games. Local hotelier Elke Spiriopoulos told me: "It's the Greek way. We start late, do very little, and then sprint towards the finish. But we'll get there." And would any Olympian between 776BC and the present day argue with a race plan like that?

Five inter-city trains a day run from Athens to Pirgos in the Peloponnese, taking just under five hours. Connect with the branch line train to Olympia (40 minutes). By road, follow signs to Corinth (Korinthia) and take the E65 and then the E55 to Pirgos and Olympia. The 200-mile trip should take about four hours.

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