IF YOU WERE an emperor and your name was Theodosius, you weren’t a friend of the Olympics. In A.D. 393 the Roman emperor Theodosius I, who’d elevated the role of Christianity in his dominions, banned the original Games, first held at Olympia, Greece more than a millennium earlier in B.C. 776, as part of his purge of pagan festivals. Theodosius II, I’s grandson, had the renowned sculptor Phedias’s gargantuan ivory-and-gold statue of Zeus (the god-patron of the Games), considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, taken from Olympia to Constantinople (now Istanbul), “where it was destroyed by fire in AD 475,” says the 12th edition of Lonely Planet Greece. So, also not a help.
The guidebook devotes several pages to the substantial remains of the ancient site of the Games—stadium, gymnasium, altars and temples—and their place in history. The modern Games, for example, reinstituted in 1896, still go to Olympia to have the torch lit that eventually ends up at the current Games’ site to ignite the flame there.
As the book points out, doping scandals are only the latest controversy to dog the Games. Earlier ones, “range from the farcical—Emperor Nero entering the chariot race in AD 67 with 10 horses, ordering that other competitors could only have four, falling off and still being declared winner—to…Hitler refusing to award gold medals to African American sprinter Jesse Owens in 1936.”
The “superb” archaeological museum at Olympia helps put the role of the Games through the ages into perspective, and at the site itself, “you can almost picture the blood and smoke of oxen sacrificed to Zeus and Hera.”
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