Ode to olde Olympia and the Olympic Games

The Olympic Games are upon us again. The XXXIst edition of the Olympic Games of the Modern Era open on August 5, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

But the whole panoply of Olympic pomp and circumstance, however, still starts in Greece where it all began over two millennia ago. Last April 21st, the ancient flame was lit from rays of the sun in olde Olympia, Greece. That signaled the start of the 2016 Olympic Torch Relay. It then culminates with the Opening Ceremony in Rio where more than 10,000 athletes from over 200 countries (the Philippines included) will gather to compete in this year’s summer Games.

This brings me back to July 2010, when I experienced the “age-old” ritual first-hand in Olympia, Greece for the lighting for the First Youth Olympic Games, inaugurated in Singapore that year. The idea of the flame from the sun to preside over the Games supposedly was practiced at the ancient games in Greece; however, it was only in 1936 when the torch relay from ancient Olympia to wherever in the world the host city is, was begun.

Actually witnessing the lighting of the flame from the sun at the very original site in Olympia was quite a visceral experience. I got more than a few tingles stepping on the hallowed grounds of the old temples and stadia where the whole notion of the Olympic Games was born. Even today, the United Nations gets into the act by declaring a truce period during the Olympic Games, just as the ancient Greeks did. Olympia is a UNESCO Heritage site as well.

This year, Olympic organizers have gone to great lengths to include displaced peoples. Not only was the Olympic Flame run by an athlete from the main refugee camp in Athens, but the IOC has created a special ROA team of Refugee Olympic Athletes to participate as such at the Games in Rio. It is meant as a gesture of inclusivity and humanity to the thousands of people suffering from the destruction of their hometowns and cities, and are in a limbo existence in camps not knowing where and when they will live next.  

The Lighting of the sacred Olympic flame from the rays of the sun in ancient Olympia, Greece, is now held every two years—for the Summer Games during leap years (2016) and the off-even-numbered years (2014, 2018, etc.) for the Winter Games. The ceremony is veiled in the mysticism of ancient Greece. It takes place in front of the old Temple of Hera, is witnessed by at least 14 priestesses, and the core of the whole ritual is the receipt of sacred fire from the sun god himself, Phoebus Apollo. Yes, it’s all very pagan – but very elegantly theatrical.   

The Lighting of the sacred Olympic flame from the rays of the sun in ancient Olympia, Greece, is now held every two years—for the Summer Games during leap years (2016) and the off-even-numbered years (2014, 2018, etc.) for the Winter Games. The ceremony is veiled in the mysticism of ancient Greece. It takes place in front of the old Temple of Hera, is witnessed by at least 14 priestesses, and the core of the whole ritual is the receipt of sacred fire from the sun god himself, Phoebus Apollo. Yes, it’s all very pagan – but very elegantly theatrical.   

I was equally thrilled to visit the battle site of Thermopylae. Nothing stands on the actual site now, but there is the King Leonidas monument across the road. Because the Olympic truce was on that year of 480 BC, the priests of Sparta forbade a larger contingent of their soldiers from joining Leonidas and his 300 at the battle.      

I was equally thrilled to visit the battle site of Thermopylae. Nothing stands on the actual site now, but there is the King Leonidas monument across the road. Because the Olympic truce was on that year of 480 BC, the priests of Sparta forbade a larger contingent of their soldiers from joining Leonidas and his 300 at the battle.      

The plaque at Thermopylae commemorates the suicidal stand of the 300 (the King’s personal bodyguard) Spartans. It reads: “Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that obedient to her law, here we lie.” 

The plaque at Thermopylae commemorates the suicidal stand of the 300 (the King’s personal bodyguard) Spartans. It reads: “Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that obedient to her law, here we lie.” 

The Lighting of the Flame at Olympia is overseen by the Hellenic Olympic Committee. They bring in drama and theatrical students from Athens to perform the roles of the priestesses and the male attendants. There are two rehearsals in the two days leading up to the actual ritual. The choreography and staging are conceived by Artemis Ignatiou, who has been doing it for at least a dozen years now.

Each new edition of the Lighting varies slightly from the previous one so as not to make it one repeat, boring affair. It is, after all, a 5-hour trip from Athens by combined bus and train, each way. The whole tableau follows essentially the same narrative each time—the priestess lights the flame from the rays of the sun in the temple enclosure, then walks over to the stadium with her party, and there, she hands over the flame to the first runner. At the 2010 Lighting, the new wrinkle was the "Dance of the Laurel Sprigs" performed by the priestesses on the stadium floor.

A cadre of male attendants (they're not called "priests") are also part of the 21st century Lighting ceremony version; and the men perform pantomimes of the original ancient sports. Previously, at the Winter Games lighting, the hand-off occurred in front of the Baron de Coubertin Memorial Stelle (where the Baron's heart is interred) on nearby Kronos Hill. Today, it is done at the old stadium grounds for both the Summer and Winter Games. Baron de Coubertin is the man responsible for reviving the idea of the ancient Games in the modern era when he organized the staging of Athens 1896.

Author in front of the 2,800-year-old Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, July 2010. Temperatures in the Olympic grove can reach as high as 95⁰ C in July and August. (Photo courtesy of Myles A. Garcia)

Author in front of the 2,800-year-old Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, July 2010. Temperatures in the Olympic grove can reach as high as 95⁰ C in July and August. (Photo courtesy of Myles A. Garcia)

Playing with ‘Fire’

In March, 2009, the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) decreed that after Singapore 2010, Olympic torch relays would no longer be as extravagant and as global as the Beijing 2008 relay. The Relay would henceforth just be limited to (Greece and) the host country. However, this cost-cutting measure created the unintended consequence of making the summer Lighting a dangerously ‘hot’ event to stage. Shorter summer torch relays meant that the lightings at Olympia would happen in either June or early July—thus making for a highly combustible situation.

Not only would the Lighting take place close to noon when the overhead sun would be most conducive to lighting the parabolic, mirrored dish but that it would also happen in the high heat of June/July. In addition to the performances of the actors, the ‘high priestess’ and the first runner would be in almost direct contact with the flame. Thus, the ceremony had to proceed as quickly as possible without diminishing the significance of the occasion, in order to minimize the exposure of the participants to the fire. (It happens now in April or May for the Summer Games because they have expanded the domestic legs in recent host countries which are as large as Brazil, Russia, etc., to about 100 days before the Opening ceremony.)

I thought that if it was that hot on a normal July day in the plains of Olympia, one could only imagine two alternate scenarios: how hot it was to compete in the midday sun over two thousand years ago, and what a furnace Olympia was when much of the greenery around the site was burned to a crisp in summer 2009. Since 2010, great precaution is now taken in the Lighting: a fire truck from the modern-day Olympia Fire Department and a team of Greek Red Cross workers are on standby, even at the rehearsals.  

Off-the-cuff photos from that trip in July 2010

The pre-dress rehearsal two afternoons before the actual event on July 22, 2010. (Photo courtesy of Myles A. Garcia)

The pre-dress rehearsal two afternoons before the actual event on July 22, 2010. (Photo courtesy of Myles A. Garcia)

The ‘priestess’ party in shady repose after the final dress rehearsal. (Photo courtesy of Myles A. Garcia)

The ‘priestess’ party in shady repose after the final dress rehearsal. (Photo courtesy of Myles A. Garcia)

Catching the dress rehearsals at Olympia is a matter of timing and is included in the price of admission to the park. Similarly, if you aren’t lucky enough to score tickets to the actual Opening or Closing Ceremonies of any Games you wish to attend, search for tickets to the dress rehearsals because those come at a fraction of the price of the real thing.

(Note that on the actual, official Lighting day, security measures in Olympia are tighter and getting to a Port-o-Potty is more difficult since movements of the non-VIPs are greatly restricted. Above all, as a summer visitor to Olympia, one must stay hydrated. The natural spring fonts at the entrance were so cool and refreshing. And don’t even think of filching a significant stone or two from the grounds as souvenirs. Big bags and backpacks aren’t allowed; plus the eyes of the park attendants are on you.)

Over-museum’ed Town

Olympia, for a town with a year-round population of only 1,000 residents (what constitutes downtown modern Olympia), is an over-museum’ed town. In addition to the ancient outdoor site (the ruins), there are three museums: (1) the biggest, most drummed-up one is the Archaeological Museum on the grounds. It contains the largest and most prized artifacts including the famous sculpture of Hermes by Praxiteles. (2) The (old) Museum built in the late 1800s, housed in a beautiful neo-classical structure atop the ticket-booth hill, which seems to display the Class B and leftover artifacts that didn’t go to the newer Archaeological museum; and finally, (3) the small Museum of the Modern Olympic Games near downtown which was closed when I visited, but with nary a sign saying it was “Closed Indefinitely.”

At the ruins, there are two gift shops: one attached to the Archaeological Museum café, and the other one, a stand-alone structure on a less favorable site, which had better merchandise but seemed to draw less foot traffic.    

Three museums for such a small town, in my mind, kills the goose that lays the golden egg. The main attraction is the ancient grounds. A visitor (and the tour buses) can actually take in only one museum, especially in the summer. There are far too many inconsequential pottery fragments and shards for the average visitor, who has devoted only six hours, if that, to the town to care about. Cruise ships now dock at the nearby port of Katakolon, and passengers take the several hours’ side excursion to Olympia.   

The statue of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, left, is the centerpiece of the Archaeological Museum at Olympia. It is the most intact example of classical Greek sculpture, found in the ruins of Olympia. Its creator is traced to the famous sculptor of the time, Praxiteles. And no, the stump of Hermes’ arm did not give rise to today’s Paralympic Games, which began in England after World War II, and is altogether another separate chapter.

The statue of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, left, is the centerpiece of the Archaeological Museum at Olympia. It is the most intact example of classical Greek sculpture, found in the ruins of Olympia. Its creator is traced to the famous sculptor of the time, Praxiteles. And no, the stump of Hermes’ arm did not give rise to today’s Paralympic Games, which began in England after World War II, and is altogether another separate chapter.

Such is the highly disproportionate number of museums to the size of the town that in one season, one museum or the other had to cut back hours and days open because not enough local staff could be found. One also wonders if they had recruited enough firefighters locally to battle the devastating wildfires that decimated much of the vegetation around the site in summer 2009.

Firsts in 2010

That Singapore 2010 lighting at Olympia was historic in more ways than one: (1) it was a departure from the normal cycle of lightings in the (adult) summer/winter Olympic years in that this was the first lighting for a brand-new edition of an IOC-sanctioned Games. (2) it was also very the first and last YOG lighting held at Olympia. The subsequent YOG lightings are now done at the Panathinaikos Stadium in downtown Athens. (3) When the torch was handed from the initial male Greek runner to the first Singapore athlete, it was a young female--making it the first time in history that a female torch bearer was allowed to run in the hallowed, ancient stadium grounds of Olympia—and I was there to witness it.  

Handing the Flame Off to the First Runners

Tradition dictates that the first runner who receives the flame is a Greek-born male athlete. He then sets off a 7-day run with other runners around Greece before the flame is handed over to the next Organizing Committee. (Above is for the Sochi 2014 handover.)  

Tradition dictates that the first runner who receives the flame is a Greek-born male athlete. He then sets off a 7-day run with other runners around Greece before the flame is handed over to the next Organizing Committee. (Above is for the Sochi 2014 handover.)  

For the lighting of the Singapore 2010 flame, tradition was broken when the flame was handed off to the second runner, Amanda Lim, a swimmer from Singapore, making her the first female athlete in history allowed to carry the flame across the old stadium at Olympia, where for centuries, it was a male-only competition, hallowed ground.  

For the lighting of the Singapore 2010 flame, tradition was broken when the flame was handed off to the second runner, Amanda Lim, a swimmer from Singapore, making her the first female athlete in history allowed to carry the flame across the old stadium at Olympia, where for centuries, it was a male-only competition, hallowed ground.  

Here is the whole ceremony of this year’s Lighting of the Flame held last April 21:   

The greatest impression for me of that 2010 visit to Olympia was the symphony of the crickets. After official visiting hours were over, while waiting for that late afternoon rehearsal of 21 July to get started, I pretty much had the Altis (the temples’ compound) to myself. It was a singular opportunity to take it all in. But the most persistent yet unseen ‘presence’ was the raucous chirping of the crickets (or cicadas). The silence of the afternoon was shattered only by that cacophonic racket and it was at that moment that I felt a singular connection to the ancients. I was humbly reminded that these creatures were here long before me—to a time when the heart of the ancient, classical world beat in olde Olympia.    


Myles A. Garcia is a correspondent and regular contributor to www.positivelyfilipino.com. He is also the author of two books: Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies, and most recently, Thirty Years Later . . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes. His first play, Dear Domenica, is undergoing developmental readings.