Where did it all begin?
The world's first sporting arena was at Olympia in the Greek western Pelopponese. A five-day festival of chariot and horse-racing, long-jumping and foot-racing was held every four years from 776BC until the Games were abolished nearly 1,200 years later. Happily, a fair amount of ancient Olympia is still intact. Down the centuries, the site has been hit by two earthquakes and severe floods, and the site was almost consumed by forest fires that engulfed the region last August, claiming 63 lives. The field and the surrounding buildings and temples are now overlooked by a hillside of charred trees.
The flames came within a few metres of the rectangular field that was rediscovered only in the 19th century. Years of careful excavation have made sense of the tangle of fallen columns and stones, assisted by scale models in the adjacent museum. The temple of Zeus, three times the size of the Parthenon, has not survived but another, dedicated to Hera, has been almost wholly reconstructed, and its magnificent 4th-century BC statue of Hermes is on display in the museum. Other sights include a monument containing the heart of the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who died in 1937. Ancient Olympia (which reopened within two days of the fires) opens every day from 8.30am-3pm (November-March) and 8am-7.30pm (April-October). The admission charge of 9 (6.30) covering the site and museum is waived on Sundays and public holidays.
You can reach Olympia by flying to Athens and travelling overland to the far west of the peninsula. Olympia's largest hotel is the Europa International (1 Drouva Street; 00 30 2624 022650; www.hoteleuropa.gr). A double room, including hot breakfast, can be secured online for 64 (45) until the end of March. A good, family-run alternative is Hotel Pelops (Varela 2; 00 30 2624 022 543; www.hotelpelops.gr), in the heart of the village about 800m from the archaeological site. Double rooms, with buffet breakfast, are 54 (38).
No one with a sense of history or a love of sport will fail to be moved by the experience of standing on the field where man, for the first time in recorded history, found a competitive alternative to warfare.
The organisers of the Athens games in 2004 paid homage to Olympia by staging the shot-put finals there, and in March the Olympic torch will be lit there, from the rays of the sun, before being relayed around the world to Beijing. The first stop will be the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, built around 330BC and gloriously reconstructed for the first modern Games in 1896, thanks to a wealthy Athenian benefactor. In the eyes of Greeks and of the Olympic movement, Panathinaiko has iconic status. Lying just east of the National Gardens, it is the only stadium in the world constructed entirely out of marble. It did further Olympic service in 2004, hosting the archery competition and the finish of the Marathon, but its elongated shape, like a giant paperclip, makes it unsuitable for most modern sports. On 30 March, the 2,300-year-old stadium will witness the passing of the flaming Olympic baton from the Greeks to the Chinese.
The flame takes a 137,000km journey through every continent except Antarctica over a period of four months. The torch is scheduled to pass through London on 6 April, San Francisco (9 April), Buenos Aires (11 April) and Canberra (24 April), before reaching Hong Kong on 2 May at the start of a tour of China and Tibet. The highlight literally will be an attempt to take the flame to the summit of Mount Everest: a second torch will be left with a group of mountaineers who are planning an ascent in May.
Is Beijing ready for the games?
In contrast to Athens 2004, whose Olympic building programme only just met the deadline, the Chinese capital is well ahead of schedule. In fact, some of the 15 new venues were completed more than a year ago, prompting the IOC President Jacques Rogge to urge the organising committee to slow the work down, so that Olympic venues wouldn't be left standing empty for long periods.
The centrepiece is the Swiss-designed National Stadium, handily located in the north of the city near the international airport, with a latticed outer structure resembling a giant bird's nest. It can seat 91,000 spectators, but it's been reported that four times that number of people were removed from their homes to make way for it without being compensated.
The main stadium is not yet finished, but don't doubt for a second that everything will be ready for the opening ceremony, which starts at 08:08:08pm (local time) on, you guessed it, 08-08-08. The airport has a new, third terminal to cope with the Olympic traffic, and Beijing's metro is being almost trebled in size, with seven new lines and 90 new stations. That apart, the most obvious sign that the Olympics are coming to town are the hundreds of official merchandise stores already doing brisk business.
Beijing's urban poor notwithstanding, China has embraced the Olympic movement with enthusiasm, and its sportsmen and women are expected to challenge the Americans at the head of the medals table next year. Sportsworld Travel (01235 554844; www.sportsworld.co.uk) is the official ticket agent of the British Olympic Association, and the only UK company authorised to request tickets from the Beijing organising committee. The company will do this on a monthly basis according to demand, and will organise your accommodation, airport transfers and Chinese visa. Flights to and from Beijing, however, are not included. The cheapest package costs 850, for a four-night visit between August 17-21, just in time to see Paula Radcliffe's attempt to win the women's marathon. If your application is successful, a day watching the athletics finals at the main stadium will cost from 63, including handling charges.
Where best to explore the Olympic past?
The headquarters of the Olympic movement is in a city that has never staged the Games, and is never likely to. Baron de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in Paris in 1894, but it moved to Lausanne after the First World War because of Switzerland's neutrality. In the rolling gardens of Olympic Park, a cunningly concealed piece of modern architecture houses the world's finest collection of Olympic memorabilia. The Muse Olympique at 1 Quay d'Ouchy (00 41 21 621 6511; www.museum.olympic.org) has permanent exhibitions devoted to the summer and winter games, and an Olympic Hall of Fame. Plenty of athletes have provided historic items of kit. On display are Carl Lewis's golden running shoes, Chris Boardman's bicycle, which revolutionised the sport at Barcelona in 1992, and Jean-Claude Killy's boots, which the French skier modified after an injury in a car crash, whereupon he won the slalom, giant slalom and downhill races at Grenoble in 1968. Serious students of Olympic history can pore through some of the uo 18,000 books and 17,500 hours of film and video footage in the library, and enjoy panoramic views of Geneva and the Alps from the rooftop restaurant and terrace. The museum opens 9am-6pm daily (except Mondays between November and March); admission is 15 Swiss francs (7).
Lausanne is most easily reached by flying to Geneva and taking the train direct from the airport station in less than an hour. Alternatively, you can get there by train from London St Pancras via Paris through Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com).
All the modern Olympic stadia survive, but some have fallen from grace. The most obscure is Francis Field, which hosted the St Louis Games of 1904. Now used by students at Washington University, safety regulations have reduced its capacity to just 4,000. But it is worth taking a look if you find yourself in St Louis, the "gateway to the West" which has daily flights from Gatwick on American Airlines (08457 789 789; www.aa.com).
The Olympic Stadiums of Antwerp (1920), Amsterdam (1928) and Barcelona (1992) are now the home grounds of lowly professional football teams, although Amsterdam hosted Ajax FC for some years; it also boasts the best Olympic museum outside Lausanne.
The Olympic Experience in the Dutch capital is currently celebrating the spread of the Games to China; it is located at Marathon Port (00 31 20 305 4400; www.olympischstadion.nl) on tram routes 16 and 24 from Centraal station, and opens 11am-5pm daily except Monday; admission 5(3.50).
Another feature of the Amsterdam stadium is its Marathon Tower, with four open balconies at the top which were fitted with what, in 1928, was the novel facility of loudspeakers to keep the crowd informed.
The Olympic Stadium in Helsinki (1952) has a taller tower, 72m high, that still dominates the city skyline. On the outskirts of Paris, the stadium that hosted the 1924 Chariots of Fire Olympiad has been overtaken by developments elsewhere in the city. Known as Stade Colombes, it was the pride and joy of French sport until the Parc des Princes opened in 1972. These days, Colombes has to make do with club rugby, but it still has a special aura about it. The stadium is a 15-minute train ride from Gare St-Lazare, on the line to Ermont-Eaubonne.
None of these ageing venues, however, has suffered misfortune on the scale of Montreal (1976) and Moscow (1980). The Montreal Games were in trouble long before a starting gun was fired. Labour disputes and technical glitches delayed the construction of the main stadium an ambitious affair designed with an external tower to control the retractable roof. The Olympics began with neither roof nor tower in place; in fact, the complex took another 14 years to complete, with the cost mounting so high that the city paid off its Olympic debt only in 2006.
As one mishap followed another, the stadium became variously known as "The Big Owe", "Uh-O" and "The Big Mistake": there was a serious fire, bits fell off, beams snapped, the roof didn't work properly, the weight of snow one winter led to a further collapse of masonry, and the floor of one of the Olympic pools fell in during a water therapy session for senior citizens.
Montreal's stadium is now described as a "multi-purpose facility", which is another way of saying it has very little purpose at all, and its demolition has been proposed. However, it remains the city's most eye-catching piece of architecture and a big tourist attraction. Half-hour guided tours of the complex (001 514 252 4141; www.rio.gouv.qc.ca) start at 10am in summer; 11am in winter (C$8/4.10), and you can take a cable car (C$9/4.10) to the top of the leaning tower that looms over the arena like a preying mantis, and provides wonderful views of the city. The nearest Metro station is Vian.
At the height of the Cold War, the focal point of Moscow's much-boycotted Olympic Games was known as "The Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium". This is where Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett fought two epic duels over 800m and 1500m, but two years later it was the scene of a ghastly spectator stampede near the end of a football match, which claimed the lives of at least 66 people.
The stadium, now named the Luzhniki Olympic Complex, has since been extensively modernised and is due to stage next year's Uefa Cup Final, but the authorities are still unhappy with the entry and exit facilities.
Which Olympic venues survived the test of time?
Just as London intends to show off the likes of Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace on its planned 2012 marathon route, the organisers of the Rome Olympiad of 1960 made a point of staging events in and around notable landmarks. The Stadio Olimpico itself had already been built in the Foro Italico; the wrestling competition was held in the 4th century Basilica of Maxentius (open 9am-7pm; admission 7.80/5.50); the gymnastics at the 3rd century Caracalla Baths (open 9am until an hour before sunset; admission 6/4.20), and the marathon ended under the Constantine Arch on the Appian Way.
You approach the Stadio Olimpico along a pavement lined with pleasing classical statues, but every slab of paving is dedicated to Mussolini: the slogan "Il Duce ...Il Duce ...Il Duce" dogs your every step. For some reason, the Rome authorities never bothered replacing them. Despite these fascist undertones, the stadium has enjoyed a glittering life, hosting football's World Cup Final in 1990.
The other Olympic city tarnished by fascism is Berlin. The 1936 Games were inaugurated by Adolf Hitler, who was in the stadium to witness the arrival of the first Olympic Torch, borne aloft by an unquestionably Aryan, blond male athlete. Somehow, the giant concrete edifice in the Grunewald Forest west of the city survived the ferocious Allied bombardment of 1945 with only minor damage, and it later survived a strong public campaign for its demolition.
In 2006, like Rome's Stadio Olimpico, Berlin's totally remodelled stadium hosted the World Cup Final. West of the main arena the original Olympic bell tower has been rebuilt, but without the bronze bell that sounded the opening of the Games. This is mounted immediately outside the stadium, with its engraved swastika clearly visible.
The 77m tower (00 49 30 305 8123; www.glockenturm.de) contains a two-floor exhibition of Olympic history in German and English, and a glass lift to an observation platform at the top, which is open every day between 9am-6pm from April to October, and from 10am-4pm on "sunny weekends" in November and December. Admission to both is 3.50 (2.40).
London's Olympic mementoes
There's scant evidence that the city staged the Olympics of 1908 and 1948, although the decision by exhausted, bankrupt Britain to step in and save the Games after the Second World War may well have counted in London's favour when it bid for 2012. Against the odds, the 1948 Olympics (right) were a success, with the "old" Empire Stadium at Wembley the focal point. The Games were cobbled together on an austerity budget. There was no Olympic Village: male athletes were quartered at an army camp in Uxbridge, Middlesex, while the women used dormitories at Southlands College, Roehampton.
The first London Olympics, 40 years previously, had a stadium specially built for the purpose. White City, near Shepherd's Bush, took only 10 months to build and cost a miniscule 60,000, but when it opened it was the largest sports arena in the world, with a vast tank at one end for the swimming events, a cycling track, and a running track. After the Games, White City never found a permanent role, although it kept going until 1978 and even staged a World Cup qualifying match (between France and Uruguay) in the 1966 World Cup.
In 1985 it was demolished to make way for the new BBC Radio headquarters, and the only clue that it once staged the Olympic Games is a list of the gold medal-winners on the wall of a nearby housing estate. Since 1908 remains the only Olympiad in which Britain came first in the medals table, a proper memorial would be fitting.
Britain rewrites the rules
The most enduring legacy of the 1908 Olympics in London is the exact length of the marathon. At 26 miles 385 yards, it's the only Olympic event with an imperial measurement (although it is uncertain whether this will help Paula Radcliffe, above, at this year's Games). In previous Games, the marathon had been 40km (24.85 miles) and then 26 miles, which was roughly the distance from Windsor Castle to the White City stadium. The extra, lung-bursting 385 yards were added when Princess Mary asked the organisers to move the finishing line to a point beneath the royal box. After passing famous landmarks such as Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, the 2012 marathon will also finish directly below the royal box at the new Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Plus a change...