Zeus was the god of the sky in ancient Greek mythology, so it felt like a smile from heaven to visit the Greek ruins of Olympia – including the Temple of Zeus – under cloudless skies as blue as the Ionian Sea in proximity.

Adding a divine nod, my wife and I were there on a day in early September, the exact time on the original Olympics calendar from 776 BC. are toppled blocks of stone scattered like colossal tombstones in a shabby cemetery.

One area, however, remains largely as it once was: the athletics stadium. Today, visitors can even use the special entrance, called the Krypt, with its stone arch still intact above. To be fair, though, the stadium waiting across that threshold is disappointing. Unlike the breathtaking Colosseum in Rome, about 300 miles to the south, the “stadium” at Olympia had no seating structure. Instead, two grass slopes rising gently the full length of the track on both sides provided standing room only for 45,000 spectators.

More wood stove:

The dirt road is not an oval but rather a long, narrow drag strip measuring just over half the width and nearly double the length of a modern football pitch. The white marble start and finish lines mark out a distance of 192 meters – called “stadium” – with races ranging from a one-length sprint to 24 round trips equivalent to almost three miles.

Before competing in foot races, as well as events added later such as the long jump, javelin throw, wrestling and boxing, athletes rubbed olive oil on their bodies and then on dirt.

“Apart from a dusty sheen,” noted our tour guide, Nicolette, a sandy blonde whose olive skin was undusted, “they competed entirely naked.”

A javelin throw from the Krypt of the track was Olympia’s most important building, the Temple of Zeus. Almost a bookend matching the Parthenon in Athens, the temple had 38 limestone columns, each 30 feet high, surrounding the perimeter and supporting a marble tiled roof that shone as white as a full moon. The centerpiece inside was a 40-foot-tall statue of Zeus, made of copper and bronze and covered in gold, and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The statue was stolen in the 5th century and later destroyed in a fire. Seven decades later, the temple was completely flattened by a pair of earthquakes. Standing among the current rubble, it is again hard to imagine the glory that once stood here.

Speaking of glory and imagination, on the track visitors lined up on the two-foot-wide, one-inch-high marble starting line, posing in runners’ squats for photos . More than a few let their visions go further, literally, rushing into sprints as if a starter’s call had just blared.

Most of these Olympic dreamers were middle-aged or older men. We even mixed with a quadruple rod. Unsurprisingly, their initial dashes generally slowed to a mid-run jog and turned into a stadium walk back.

Invariably, with the exception of the gentleman with the cane, the contestants resumed a sprint for the last 10 or so yards, still beaming as if the champion’s olive crown was up for grabs.

Watching them, as I didn’t participate, I couldn’t help but smile as well – with thanks that they didn’t take their old Olympic musings so seriously as to run around wearing only olive oil and dust.

To be continued next week with more information on olive oil…

Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Star and can be reached at [email protected] His books are available at www.WoodyWoodburn.com.

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