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Olympics: Athens 2004
"Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body"

by

Arnie Greenberg

Every four years the summer Olympics fill our thought and we watch with wonder how the records of the past are continuously broken. Today’s athletes do go higher, farther and faster. I’m sure next summer’s 2004 Olympic games in Athens will produce the same results. They will be important games because for the first time in modern times they will be staged where they started, in Greece. This time, however, they will be in Athens, Originally they were staged at Olympia, some miles away. That site is still visited by thousands each year and while we will be watching the competitions in Athenian venues, our minds will still be on those early games and the site that still holds awe for so many.

I had the good fortune to visit both Olympia and Athens this summer. It requires great imagination to see Athens as the site of the 2004 games. The city is under construction or reconstruction. To this observer, they are far from completing the required sites. Even getting into the city is a mammoth task that could take hours. There are cranes everywhere and I saw very few people actually working. But it’s not for me to decide if it will be ready. The Olympic committee visited Athens recently and said the games will go on. This is one of the miracles of man’s ingenuity.

Consider that unlike the original games that held 10 events, the modern Olympics will feature 28 sports with 10,500 athletes, 3000 officials and 301 medal presentations over a 16-day period. The Olympic village alone will house 16,000 people. The games require a force of 45,ooo security people.

I did visit the gigantic stadium and was impressed but the road building alone will be a mega-project. It seems that every time they uncover some ancient artifact, the work comes to a halt. The work is taking place on hallowed ground. It’s slow, but it will get done. The last time the games were in Greece was almost one hundred years ago. It was held there for the first modern Olympics in 1906.

So, there I was in Greece in the spring of 2003, a year too early. It was not my first trip to this inviting country. I decided to drive across the Peloponnesian peninsula and visit the ancient site of Olympia. It was a thoroughly rewarding experience.

I entered the Sanctuary. Remember, it is an archeological site, a ruin, a place of strewn rocks, pieces of columns, overgrown treed areas. But we know exactly where the second century gymnasia were. The large porticoed spaces where the athletes trained for the pentathlon are still there, filled with the ghosts of history. This sacred site is said to be under the protection of Zeus. The ancient Greeks believed that the Olympian gods inaugurated the games on this site and Zeus defeated Cronos at wrestling, while Apollo beat Axes at boxing and Hermes at running. Here Hercules is believed to have organized the first track events. It was he who crowned the first winner of a foot race with a kitinos, a branch of wild olive from a tree he himself had planted on the site. Here, in order to ensure safety of movement for both athletes and spectators, a Sacred Truce was declared. All hostilities between city-states would be suspended for the month of the games. They were held every five years and lasted for five days. We assume that the games were held between the end of July and the middle of August.

 The games became the basis of dating events. Heralds were sent out to every corner of Greece and their colonies to announce the date, the opening and the inauguration of the Sacred Truce that would cease all hostilities and defer all sentences of Capital punishment.

The games go back to 776 BC, a time that is considered the beginning of Greek historical times. The area of Olympia changed hands many times over the years but the games continued, except for a few interruptions.

The Romans arrived in 146 BC and the games flourished during the rule of Hadrian. They continued until 393 AD when the Emperor Theodosius forbade them.  By the sixth century, earthquakes destroyed the site as it was. The river Alpheios gradually brought floods that buried the sanctuary. It was not until 1896 that Baron de Coubertin revived the games. He planned to “re-establish the games…under conditions conformable to the needs of modern life and bring together every four years representatives from all nations…and suppose tat the best of internationalism would be supplied”.

Since then the games have been held every four years, except during the two world wars. Each set of games is held in a different major world capital with participation from all countries.

With the aid of my guide, Loula Haniotaki, I saw the palaestra where the participants wrestled, boxed and jumped, the altar, the baths and the official guesthouse. I visited the site where the hippodrome stood before the floods washed it away. Then I tried my stamina by running across the long narrow stadium. In my mind I heard the cheering of the crowd. I ran where ancient Greeks raced, over 2500 years ago. It was moving to imagine the 45,000 spectators watching the athletes race across the 192.27-meter running track.

We had entered via the crypt or secret entrance. It had a vaulted roof constructed during Roman times. One can imagine the roar of the crowd as the athletes entered the stadium through this narrow passage.

On the way to the Temple of Zeus, I was shown the base of Pianios’ statue of Nike.  This important temple was built of local limestone and originally covered with stucco, except the parts made of marble. Here there was once a statue of Zeus, seated on a throne, created by the sculptor Pheidias.And to the north I could see the remainder of the Temple of Hera. This Doric structure is pre Zeus and dates from 600 BC. The circular base is partly in place but the columns are mostly crumbled.

While tourists will be interested in the games of Athens in 2004, the site at Olympia will always be of interest to those who believe in history as a way to understand who we are. I will return one day. It will still be there. As for the 2004 site, I’m certain that the games will go on and they will bring glory to young men and women from many countries. But I won’t be at the games. For me the original ideas of faster, higher, farther are the essence of the games. Today they have become commercialized. I will watch them from the comfort of my home. I do salute the city of Athens for the efforts they are going through to make the games a success. I know that they will end up with a series of buildings that can be used for future generations and the modernization of a city that can certainly use a lift. Greece is the cradle of our civilization. It was a good move by the powers that be to give Athens the games. I know they will do well.

But for me, Olympia is the fountain of the games. The experience of being there will stay with me forever,

The coastal road from Athens via Patra and south to Pirgos can reach Olympia. The region is littered with ruins of ancient cities, Byzantine churches and Medieval castles. From Pyrgos the road forks to the east and through the valley of Olympia. The great remains of Olympia are at the far end of that valley at the foot of a pine-covered hill. There are tour companies out of Athens that include Olympia and because you have a guide to show you around, it becomes the easiest way of going.  The Museum at Olympia is important and contains statues such as Hermes (circa 330 BC), Zeus and Ganymede (circa 480 BC) and a terracotta head of Athena (circa 490 BC). Unfortunately, the museum is under renovations and won’t be open until the games begin. You can go there afterwards. It’s worth the visit.

Many cruise boats stop nearby and excursions are arranged for a brief visit. Of course, it’s better not to be rushed. After all, how often will you get there?

That’s a far cry from the distances and the hardship of travel to the site during earlier times. Yet, with 45,000 people filling the stadiums plus the officials, priests and athletes one can imagine the spectacular sight they witnessed.

I suppose that if they could expend that much energy, the modern Greeks are capable of completing the required building sites in time for 2004. It should be a very special year. The games start on August 13th and end on August 29th.

No matter how you get there I heartily recommend this site as one of the most moving in Greece.

So let the cannons boom. Let the flame be lit. Let the pigeons fly to symbolize international good will.

Let the games begin. Athens will be ready.

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 

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