Visiting the origin of the Olympics

Photos and history from Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic games in Greece. What was it like at the first Olympics?

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


The first olympics

The Olympic Games have not changed all that much since ancient days. Thousands of years ago, the games were designed to please the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. These days, they’re designed to please the gods of modern capitalism – sponsors, television networks and tourism boards.

It has, and always will be, about worshipping what humans believe makes the world what it is.

Ancient Olympia, Site of original Olympics, Greece

At about this time every four years, we hear a lot about Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics. In 776 BC, the first games were held here and – as a tribute – the Olympic flame is still lit on the site before every torch relay.

What is Olympia like, though? And how much of a sense can you get of how the ancient games would have been?

I decided to go there and find out for myself, to see one of the most famous World Heritage Sites in Greece.

Ancient Olympia, Site of original Olympics, Greece
Ancient Olympia, Site of original Olympics, Greece

Ancient Olympia, Greece

The first thing you notice is the noise – a constant buzzing. Insects, hidden from the eye, fill the site with their sounds. Far from any roads or modern development, it’s the only noise here.

The second thing you notice is how green everything is. Ruins in Greece are notorious for being relatively hot and barren but most of Olympia is shaded by trees – often bearing olives or other fruit.

The air is cooler amongst these ruins than in the tourist town half a kilometre away.

Ancient Olympia, Site of original Olympics, Greece

It’s a large site, with at least a dozen major buildings… along with smaller associated structures.

Like much of the ancient world, very little has withstood the test of time and often you need to use your imagination to get a sense of how it would once have looked. But more is intact than might be expected, including quite a few impressive rows of columns.

Ancient Olympia, Site of original Olympics, Greece
Ancient Olympia, Site of original Olympics, Greece

You’re able to see what remains of the area where the athletes would train, where they would sleep, and where they would take their oath before competing. In some ways, the systems and the required buildings were not too different to today.

At the centre of the complex of buildings is the most important structure – The Temple of Zeus.

One column, reconstructed for the 2004 Athens Games, gives a sense of size and majesty. For an ancient sports competition designed to praise the gods, there was no part of Olympia more sacred than here.

Ancient Olympia, Site of original Olympics, Greece

The first olympic stadium

This whole area was off-limits to most of the people who came to Olympia. Only the officials and VIPs spent time amongst the complex of buildings. It was the stadium next to the site that was the centre of attention for the spectators.

It’s not really a stadium in the sense that we understand today… or even that we see at places like Rome’s Colosseum.

The original stadium of the ancient Olympics was a dirt rectangle, 212 metres by 28 metres with a natural grassy slope all around it. It was here on the grass that the crowd would sit, cheering and shouting as the events took place in front of them.

Although the area doesn’t seem too big, it’s estimated that it could hold about 45 thousand people!

Ancient Olympia, Site of original Olympics, Greece

The stadium in London will hold many more people than that over the next couple of weeks. The business of the Olympics has grown into something the ancient Greeks could never have imagined.

Newspaper columns are now more important than Ionic ones, television stations treated more like divine beings than Zeus, and the exclusive rights of sponsors protected better than the Acropolis.

Ancient Olympia, Site of original Olympics, Greece

It’s nice to remember where it all started, though. Some things have changed and some haven’t.

Thousands of years ago the best athletes in the land came together to push themselves to the extremes – faster, higher, stronger. Let’s hope that’s what we celebrate in London this time too.


Although nearby Pyrgos is a much bigger city, you’ll find enough good accommodation options in Olympia itself.


Although there are no hostels in town, you’ll get the best price at the Anesi Rooms apartments.


For comfortable and affordable rooms, I would recommend Hotel Hercules.


Although the facilities are modern, the olive grove setting and taverna of Hotel Europa give it a rustic feel.


With large grounds and an unbeatable location, Amalia Hotel is the best luxury option in town.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

29 thoughts on “Visiting the origin of the Olympics”

  1. I was just thinking about ancient ruins yesterday. If you have a look at a map of all countries and the ruins from all civilizations ie Romans, lycians, carians etc. I do think we are quite blessed as they are plentiful, certainly here in Turkey. Do people fully appreciate them though? I don’t think so.

    • Turkey certainly has some amazing ruins, I’ve heard (and will be discovering for myself soon). The whole Mediterranean basin seems to have some of the world’s most interesting history (at least, that which you can still see some of).

  2. Wow, way to travel us back in time oh mighty time travel turtle (the blog title now starts to make sense ;))

    More seriously though, this looks like an amazing place to visit, and what a timely post 🙂 Plus, I love the sound of the insects in the Mediterranean lands, it’s such a great background hum to have.

  3. It would be awesome if they held the modern Olympics in the traditional style with no amazing shoes to use or specialist equipment. I wonder how different it would be?
    Definitely making our way to Greece soon and this will be on the list of must see’s.

    • It’s funny to think about how far it has come and how different the games are in 2012. Although, having said that, I do wonder if they are the equivalent spectacle for each society and it’s just that the times have changed so much.

  4. Interesting read! I wish more people would realize that the temples of 2,000 years ago are now ruins, just as ours will be one day, too. The present is fleeting and so soon becomes the past! I can’t wait to go to Greece and see all this for myself!

  5. It’s interesting to see the ruins and see how far we’ve come. We’ve turned this event into a spectacle now. However, it is still about the athletes. With that said, I just wrote a post about how the Olympics are the greatest sporting event in the world because they transcend travel and culture to unite our world in a way that is rarely seen. I love the spirit of the Olympics today even though it’s become a lot more about corporations and money.

    • The London Olympics were so well run but I don’t know if it had as much excitement as when it’s hosted in a country you don’t know much about – I kind of like finding out about the local culture as much as the sport.

  6. It’s like that Knights of Templar? cup in Indiana Jones… I would not have picked it out. That’s incredible and yet it makes complete sense. It’s exactly the type of play arena of so many countries I’ve been to which were developing. It’s amazing to see how far western civilization has come regarding the Olympics and what it’s been made into.


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