Friday, May 15, 2009

Day 5: Olympia, Greece

Our tour guide was accurate in stating that we’d miss the city of Katakolon completely if we blinked on our way through. It is a small city but the port has occasionally played an important role in accessing Olympia – both today and centuries earlier. Unfortunately, the most vivid memory I’ll have is the combined smell of spoiled eggs and sweaty feet.

I’m sure without the tour we would have visited some interesting ruins, wandered through ancient stones and called it a day. Our tour guide provided context, stories and clarification throughout the trip. Two themes were most pronounced to me: architecture and the original Olympics.

First, our tour guide pointed out some architectural distinctions of the ruins to allow those in the group to identify some elements ourselves. In particular we learned how to distinguish between Greek structures and Roman structures. The Greeks used large, rectangular “bricks” to build their gymnasiums and monuments whereas the Romans used small, flat “bricks”. She also pointed out the distinct differences between three column types that were available in the Olympic park: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. The Doric columns did not have a base, were large and round at the bottom and decreased in circumference as they grew in stature and were always topped with a flat capital held up by a basin-shaped unit. The Ionic columns are consistent in circumference from base to capital and typically have vertical thick grooved lines running base to capital. They also always have a base. Their capitals have swirls on the side – resembling rams horns or a conch shell. The Corinthian variety stem from the Ionic, but they’re capitals have much more ornate designs – many with a natural, floral look. It was nice to be able to walk through the ruins and identify various forms on the structures.

Second, as one might expect in Olympia, the Olympics were a hot topic. Originally they were a part of a religious celebration to Zeus. In ancient days the Greeks were required to worship Zeus every four years so the timing of the event corresponded. After the initial worship rituals, they developed the games as an additional form of worship – to display the ideal athlete: someone fit in mind and body. It was believed that the winner was chosen by Zeus. It was also a time of peace. When the lit torch arrived in a village, it signified the start of three months of peace with all Greeks. This provided enough time for citizens to make the journey to Olympia, participate in the ceremony and journey home without a scuffle. Three things were not permitted in the area: no hostilities, no death penalties enacted and no weapons in the sanctuary.

The best would come when viewing the original Olympic stadium. The competition area is 600 Herculean feet (about 200 meters). Ten judges were selected from throughout Greece, and they sat in a box on the left side of the stadium about mid-way in the competition area. Why not at the end? The Greeks believed Zeus selected the winner. Thus, the judges were not worried about the end result. Instead they were there to watch the behavior of the competitors. For to be a good athlete, one must be physically fit and also virtuous, moral and demonstrate character. Essentially, they were looking for cheaters. And when they identified one? He was expelled and fined. Worse than that though, a small statue was made of him and a base with his name, his father’s name and his village were placed outside the entrance to the stadium. The ancient walk of shame. From then on, whenever someone entered the Olympic stadium, they passed a line of statues of cheaters. The poor schmuck who tried it at the last Olympics to be celebrated in Olympia lives on in infamy. His name, father’s name and village are still visible on the last base before the entrance. I wonder if something similar might be effective today – a wall of shame to cart around to each Olympic competition with the names of cheaters. It would be nice to bring back the notion of an athlete being someone more than a person who can run fast, toss a ball far or make a lot of money.

Our visit to the nearby museum was also interesting – mostly because our guide again gave the stories behind the statues and remnants. It’s probably too much information to attempt to cram into a post – and possibly a disservice without photos.

More later.

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