When Nike was merely the goddess of victory

Athens is just days away from hosting the Olympic Games, but it was Olympia where the great athletic festival all began - in 776 BC. Louise Roddon limbers up
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The Independent Travel

'Do you know what made Adam, of Adam and Eve, so happy?" asked my taxi driver. We were on our way to Olympia, driving through the Greek province of Elis in the western Peloponnese. It's a landscape where soft hills dominate, tufted with silvery olive groves and flame-like cypress trees, and with occasional glimpses of the Ionian sea beyond.

'Do you know what made Adam, of Adam and Eve, so happy?" asked my taxi driver. We were on our way to Olympia, driving through the Greek province of Elis in the western Peloponnese. It's a landscape where soft hills dominate, tufted with silvery olive groves and flame-like cypress trees, and with occasional glimpses of the Ionian sea beyond.

"Because he was in paradise?" I replied, inspired by these bucolic views.

"Nah!" laughed Dinos. "He had no mother-in-law!"

They say beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Perhaps that warning should extend to corny jokes. But Dinos turned poet as we dipped down into the wooded valley of Olympia, waxing lyrical about the beauty of its shady ancient site, and the drama of the Olympic ceremony he had attended a few weeks back. "All the girls dressed like Greek goddesses, then the lighting of the Olympic flame on Hera's altar - this is something marvellous to see."

With the 2004 Olympic Games beginning in Athens in just under two weeks' time, the tiny Peloponnesian town where the idea started life back in 776BC is the centre of huge interest. In honour of the occasion, the archaeological museum, already considered one of the best in Europe, has been completely refurbished. The ruins themselves are sporting new multilingual descriptions, including first-rate visual reconstructions of gymnasiums and temples. The ancient stadium will come into its own when it hosts the Games's shot put event.

But on this quiet Sunday in late spring, modern Olympia, an endearing one-street town of tavernas and souvenir shops, seemed unexpectedly deserted. Greek families were spinning out a late lunch of souvlaki and retsina, their voices rising to foghorn volume in the warm sunshine. And if it hadn't been for the occasional sleek double-decker tour bus gliding along Kondili Street towards the ruins, you could easily imagine that this was some backwater set aside for locals only.

I decided to conserve energy, and took my place among the noisy families in shady Zeus café, watching impeccably behaved children tucking into ice creams while I tackled a huge bowl of feta cheese, olives, and tomatoes.

It was a wise choice. The next morning, a 10-minute walk took me away from the main drag and into the sanctuary and site, and there was barely a tourist bus to be seen. But if there were no tourists, something pretty bizarre was in their place. Outside the entrance was a collection of solar-powered cars, wafer-thin and three-wheeled, with a tiny glass bubble for the driver's head. They looked like something that Virgil from Thunderbirds might fancy piloting.

"The Cultural Olympiad have organised this event," explained a groupie. "It's the first of its kind: a speed rally among different nations to kick off the Olympics. They started from Athens two days ago, then came here, then it's Delphi and all the way back again. All powered by the sun.

"It's very symbolic of course," he added. "Just like the sun lighting the Olympic flame and propelling humans!"

In ancient times Olympia was considered the home of sport. Games were held at other locations - Megara for instance, staged a contest for the sweetest kisser (among boys) - but it was at Olympia that sportsmanship reached its purest form. The ancient athletic ideal was grounded in the belief that physical exercise had a positive influence on spiritual development. And records have it that the first winner of the 600ft stadion race, a local cook called Koroibos, fitted the bill nicely. He was described as a kind, modest man - never given to blowing his own trumpet. All contestants had to be not only moral and fit, but "free Greeks" too - no murderers or temple robbers.

"Yes, but all that changed when the Romans came along," sighed my somewhat xenophobic guide, Katte. "The Romans found it all too tame. They were used to fights to the death in the Colosseum. And they cheated," she added, with visible outrage, telling me the story of how Nero had been crowned winner of the chariot races, even though he fell from his chariot and didn't reach the finishing line.

Olympia has to be one of the loveliest of archaeological sites. As Katte was amply demonstrating, its Arcadian setting of ancient oaks, pines, oleander, and groves of olive trees, means you are never short of finding a leafy spot to shelter from the sun. Its scale is user-friendly, and you can make sense of the ruins themselves with little effort.

We started at the gymnasium, where training for running, javelin, and discus took place. Athletes competed naked - a rule introduced apparently after a competitor's pants fell down during the foot race, which. But whatever the origins, the practice explains the root of the word gymnasium - gumnos is the Greek for nude.

Unlike at other sporting locations from the ancient world, women were banned from seeing all those toned pectorals, and from participating in events, save for a handful of virgins who ran their own race. One bared breast proved their sex, in honour of the goddess Hera.

Her temple, with its sturdy Doric columns, stands alongside the imposing temple to Zeus, and in front of a fascinating "cheats' corridor" once lined with statues dedicated to the thunderbolt god, and funded by the hefty fines paid by cheating athletes. Just to warn future contestants, those foul players' names and crimes were inscribed on the plinths that led to the stadium.

Olympia's well preserved stadium is one of the highlights of the site. The running track was the longest on mainland Greece and held 45,000 spectators. Equally impressive for its sense of modernity, is the site's leonidaion - the large hotel built in 330BC to house VIP guests. It's like an ancient Hyatt-style resort, with a central courtyard, island gardens and a swimming pool, and as you wander through what remains, it's easy to distinguish the suites from the more modest deluxe singles. Even these were pretty generous, however, easily outscaling my own room back in town.

The hotel obviously impressed one American woman. "Donna, d'you wanna go pose in the columns?" she asked her friend, raising her camera. "No," came the reply. "I don't do columns."

If Donna had tired of columns, there was always the museum to bring the world of Olympia to life. Here you can find tiny bronze votives of animals, given by spectators as sacrificial presents. There are descriptions of how the winner, crowned with olive wreath and dressed in purple robes, would return triumphant to his home town, where he and his family could expect free meals at the local prytaneion (town hall) for the rest of their lives.

Back in town that evening, I was lingering over a cup of coffee when the owner of the Apollo jewellery shop, sidled up. "You want to see my Olympic torch?" Thinking this was some local chat-up line, I smiled a decline. But George was insistent. "No, really! You ask my sister. I ran in the relay back in '76. Come!"

Sure enough, there was the torch, and a postcard showing George as a young man, holding the flame. "Look, I sign this, and give it to you. But only if you come Greek dancing with me tonight."

Maybe there is something in that saying about Greeks and gifts after all.


How to get there

Louise Roddon travelled to Olympia with Sunvil Greece (020-8568 4499; www.sunvil.co.uk). Tailor-made fly-drive holidays to the Peloponnese start from £686pp (two sharing) to include flights from London Gatwick or Manchester (for a supplement of £35 per person), car hire and seven nights' B&B accommodation. Sunvil can also arrange a guide at Olympia.

Where to find out more

Greek National Tourism Organisation (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk).