I’m Wondering How Ancient Athletes Cheated

Every site has it’s own story and another way it grabs me and invokes my imagination. A friend once described ancient ruins as “old rocks,” but for me they are so much more than that. They are fingerprints and sweat, labor and pride, and they are memory and mirror.

Messene, yesterday, was multilayered, like an onion. Each hilltop there led the way to another view, invisible until its time. Beyond each crown, our eyes beheld another stupefying level of greatness and beauty. It is almost linear in its arrangement, however.

Ancient Olympia, on the other hand, is much more compact, and passing amongst its lanes I felt like I was able to assemble a sense of the buildings that had once been here, and could almost intuit how traffic flowed to and fro amongst the massive stone structures.

Unlike Messene, which has mostly been cleared of trees, Olympia is entwined with tall, old trees everywhere, and stepping into her byways feel like I’ve entered into a medieval forest, discovering the ruins for the first time.

As Dan and I walk, we wonder, was this place always known? Or was it lost to memory? Did children play amongst the fragments of fallen columns? Did they dare each other to run into the remains of Nero’s palace and tempt the ghosts that must still abide therein? Did they challenge each other to races in the ancient stadium?

Here, near the entrance was the gymnasion. Every place I’ve visited seems to have a place dedicated to athletes, and I would expect no less at Olympia, where competitors first gathered every 4 years.

And then I came upon another circular temple. Perhaps they were more common than I realized? This was the Philippeion.

A few steps further in are the remains of the Temple of Hera, dating to the 7th century BCE.

And the basin in this adjacent structure reminded me of yesterday’s Arsinoe Fountain. This was once the corner of the nymphaion, a massive monumental fountain that was built here in the 2nd century AD. And I realize as I compare ages that when this was built, the Temple of Hera next door was 900 years old. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around time in that scale.

Here, we came upon the entrance to the old stadium and the Walk of Shame. On the left were 12 platfoms for statues of Zeus. The statues were purchased using fines levied against athletes who had cheated, and the names of the cheaters were engraved below, so their foul deeds would not be forgotten. With the building across the street, I imagine that when competitions took place, this place was very congested.

And beyond that gate, that archway, was the stadium. I’ve visited stadia before, but this one is different; it’s simpler. Although it could seat 45,000, there were but a handful of seats, and those were reserved for the judges.

On the ground there were scant few markings. Outlining the perimeter there were two stone lines, that I interpret to mean “out of bounds.” And near each end were two broad marble stripes, for the starting and finishing lines.

These were the Olympics of ancient times. And I can only imagine that they were a spectacle.

Back through the archway, another building has caught my eye – this one immense. It once stood in the center of the area, but lies in shambles now, the discs of its columns scattered about like stacks of nickels that have been knocked over.

This was once the Temple of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods, and the scale of this building must have been breathtaking, with thick fluted columns and simple, elegant Doric capitals.

When I look at the scale of this building and I consider its columns and its blocks assembled with precision and without mortar, I am simply unable to imagine how it was built. How was this possible?

We continue on amongst the rubble, talking and assessing. Reading occasional signs, and mostly just enjoying the warm breezy afternoon.

I’m getting better at interpreting the ruins. As soon as I saw this one I declared, “Early Christian Basilica.” The sign outside confused me momentarily when it was instead identified as a great artist’s workshop. But then I went inside I found the cross and later read that both were true. It had once been a workshop, but was later converted to a church.

After the site, we went to see the museum, with its relics and statues of Nike and Hermes, but no museum can ever measure up to a site like Ancient Olympia, whose legacy and mesmerizing alchemy were enough to fill a day.

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