Original Olympia Origins: In Greece, where the games began, it's easy to race back centuries -- only to meet some wonderful characters of today.

July 07, 1996|By Mike Nichols | Mike Nichols,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

"Plodding wins the race."

-- Aesop

In Olympia, Greece, the temptation is natural: To run past the judges' stand and imagine being crowned with the olive wreath of victory as spectators (including, perhaps, Plato or Diogenes or Herodotus) roar their approval.

Children readily succumb to the urge, crouching at the stone starting line and then bolting down the track. Amid tumbled columns and roofless walls, in the ruins of the stadium where it all began, they are running literally in the footsteps of ancient Olympians.

When the Olympic Games were born here in 776 B.C., the Great Wall of China had not been built; the Mayan culture had yet to be founded; Confucius had not been born; and Nike was the goddess of victory, not a registered trademark.

The games were held here every four years for more than a thousand years, even under Roman rule. But they were abruptly halted because of increasingly bitter relations between Greeks and Romans. After a lapse of 1,500 years, they were resumed in 1896 in Athens, making that city the sentimental favorite to play host to the centennial of the modern Olympics this month. But the city's air pollution, traffic congestion and aging infrastructure made it no match for Atlanta.

So the satellite-beamed television event we know as the Summer Olympics will be held this year in the American South. But I wanted to see where these ancient games began -- to visit the sites associated with them. That meant going to Olympia and a drive that would take me to Athens and Marathon, and dozens of ancient and unheralded towns between.

Along the way I found myself distracted and sidetracked by the expansive beauty of the countryside, the boundlessly engaging culture and uniformly friendly people: the cloistered monk in his cliffside retreat; the artist who keeps ancient crafts alive; the historian who lives on a battlefield; the mathematics teacher, riding his bike in the mountains; and the grandmother with her grandchildren, tending her sheep.

Yet it is in Olympia, among the sprawling ruins of fountains, baths and the arches through which Olympic athletes paraded into the stadium, that the Olympic spirit is evoked most powerfully, for the cold stones are links to the honored spectacle that I can only imagine.

Reminders

When I watch the Greco-Roman wrestling at this year's Olympics, my mind's eye will see the columns of the wrestling school at Olympia, where young athletes trained.

When I see women from around the world competing -- something they did not do in the beginning -- I will picture the temple of Hera, queen of the gods, sister/wife to Zeus and goddess of women and marriage.

As I watch the athletes from many nations compete in Atlanta, I will think back to the ruins of the Treasuries -- a row of temple-like buildings where Greek cities and colonies from as far away as Italy, Albania, North Africa and Byzantium stored sacrificial items and sporting equipment.

And the mad scramble for accommodations in Atlanta will remind me that housing was no problem at Olympia, at least not for VIPs. They stayed at the luxurious Leonidaion. The limestone walls of its guest rooms still stand, and the courtyard -- with the remains of its colonnade and its moatlike, curving water garden -- hints at its elegance.

In its glory days, the centerpiece of Olympia was the temple of Zeus, and the games were dedicated to his glory. Today, little remains but the foundation and scattered sections of fluted columns 5 feet in diameter. Still, I could picture the 42-foot-tall gold-and-ivory statue of the chief deity of Greek mythology, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, that once stood here.

Relics and replicas

Olympia's museum, filled with relics excavated from the site, puts flesh on the bones of the ruins. One room has athletic equipment: discuses, weightlifters' stones and hand weights used to help jumpers achieve greater momentum. A gallery of statues portrays statesmen, generals and gods forever frozen in marble; massive pediments from the temple of Zeus depict epic struggles; and there are coins, weapons, tools, bronzes and ceramics.

Dimitris Kirkilessis, an artist in the modern town of Olympia, adjacent to the ancient site, knows such ceramics well. He creates wonderfully faithful replicas of Greek masterpieces.

"I paint each piece in the exact colors of the original, using mineral colors -- powders. Then I apply the patina to give it age. The details of the work are many. The most important detail is the expression on the faces. Everything is done by hand. It can take me a month to do a replica. An amphora vase from the Geometric Period [1050 B.C. to 700 B.C.] has 2 1/2 million-motif line on it."

His gallery is filled with vases, bas-reliefs and busts, the Apollo and Hermes in odd juxtaposition to Beavis and Butthead T-shirts in the souvenir shop across the street. With one of Kirkilessis' bas-reliefs ($48) as a memento of Olympia, I pressed on.

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