Widely thought to have originated in 776BC, the Olympic Games is unquestionably the world’s most enduring, and esteemed sporting event. Its birthplace, Olympia, is a sanctuary in Greece’s Ellis region, where the original games were once established as religious occasions. The feats of strength and combat performed there were in tribute to deities like Zeus and Hera, both of whom had their own temples near the ancient arena.
If you make the pilgrimage to this sanctuary today you can expect to see vestiges of the ancient stadium, where markers still delineate the starting and finishing lines, and pillars defiantly rise to support long crumbled struts. The nearby temple of Zeus once contained one of the Seven Wonders of the World; a gold and ivory statue of the deity, though nothing remains of it, after it was destroyed by a fire in the fifth century. However, plenty of salvaged artifacts can be viewed in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, notable for the detail of its beautiful stone sculptures of athletes, horses and gods.
In July and August, the Ancient Olympia International Festival draws visitors in their thousands to the amphitheater and the nearby village of Floka. Its lineup of concerts, exhibitions and storytellers make summer months an opportune time to arrive in this place of sporting legend.
Another mighty archaeological sanctuary, Delphi, as legend has it, is said to have been discovered by Zeus himself, and once held its own, Pythian Games, which predate the Olympics. Located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, Delphi is home to the Temples of Athena and of Apollo, where an eternal flame burned until it was sacked by the Romans in 87 A.D. Visitors to these revered remains will find a ruin with a view: majestic pillars and a stratified stadium encircled by sweeping mountain vistas.
Not only do Greece’s sanctuaries house some of its most enticing archaeological remnants, the legends of Olympia and Delphi continue to breathe life into today’s athletic practices. Olympic champions were the heroes of their time; immortalized in stone, garnering victory laurels and treasures, much as today’s Olympians become national heroes. Anyone who has experienced the thrill of the starting whistle, the pain of defeat or the triumph of a race fairly won will relish a trip to this land of champions.