Ancient Olympia, where the Olympic Games began

On a sun-baked patch of earth in ancient Olympia, in Greece's Peloponnese region, a group of German teenage boys and girls are racing each other, spiking the warm air with dust, laughter and competitive spirit.

About 100 metres further back, a sprightly American pensioner crouches in the sprint "set" position, waiting for his wife to fire an imaginary start gun. He dashes off and about a minute later, he reaches the stone finish line, arms aloft, a Cheshire Cat-like grin creasing his face.

Young or old, sports nut or not, it's hard to resist the urge to run on the "track" of this, the original Olympic stadium. It's a far cry from the glossy arenas we'll see at Tokyo 2020. There are no sweeping tiers of seating here. No 400 metre oval track even. Olympia's stadium comprises a dirt rectangle, about 200 metres in length and 30 metres wide, edged by grassy slopes where up to 45,000 spectators - mostly men, with some unmarried women and virgins (married women weren't allowed in) - would watch naked male athletes flaunting their athletic prowess.

A straightforward sprint was the sole event of the inaugural Olympics of 776BC, with Koroibos of Elis, a local cook and baker, victorious, becoming "the fastest man in the world" (only freeborn Greek men were allowed to participate).

The Games were subsequently held every four years, with events such as javelin, boxing, wrestling and chariot races later added to the roster. Initially embraced by the Romans, who colonised swathes of Greece in 146BC, the Games were banned in AD394 by Emperor Theodosius I, who decided to clamp down on pagan beliefs and festivals.

While the Olympics were seen as a vehicle for uniting the independent Greek city-states, they were primarily staged to honour Zeus, the mightiest of all Greek gods.

Weathered columns of the Temple of Zeus are among the relics in the old walled sanctuary adjoining the stadium.

Much of this site, surrounded by forested hills and studded with pine and olive trees, was plundered then buried in mud for 1500 years after devastating floods and earthquakes, before French and German archaeologists began excavations in the 19th century.

Some of their discoveries grace Olympia's museum, including intricately carved marble pediments from the Temple of Zeus, beautiful pottery and sculptures like Nike of Paionios and Hermes of Praxiteles. After visiting the museum, we walk among the ruins with Penny, our Greek guide, regaling us with tales of ancient athletes and eclectic rituals.

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We pass the remnants of bath houses and gymnasiums, a hotel that would have hosted VIGs (Very Important Greeks) and the site of the Altar of Zeus, where 100 oxen were sacrificed during each Olympics. We see where the winners were crowned.

There were no gold, silver and bronze medals back then. Champions would instead receive an olive wreath and a hero's welcome back home, with myriad perks, such as free food for life and front-row theatre seats. They were also often immortalised in statues.

Olympia also had a wall of shame to expose cheats, depicting their names, crimes and the city-state they had represented (and embarrassed). It's said some cheats - caught taking "performance-enhancing" potions like bull's blood - had accidents on their way home.

Penny points out where the Statue of Zeus would have loomed. Crafted by legendary Greek sculptor Phidias, this was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, towering 12 metres and plated in gold and ivory. Some historians believe it was taken to Constantinople - modern-day Istanbul - and accidentally destroyed in a fire. It was the rediscovery of ancient Olympia that sparked the revival of the Olympics, with the first modern Games held in Athens in 1896 (four years later in Paris, women were allowed to compete for the first time).

On March 12, 2020, the Olympic flame will be lit once more beside Olympia's ruined Temple of Hera, kick-starting the official torch relay, which travels around Greece before being transported to the host country. On July 24, the flame will ignite the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony in Tokyo, renewing the link between the Games ancient and new.

TRIP NOTES

Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette.

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TOUR

Olympia is a highlight of Collette's 14-day Exploring Greece and Its islands tour, which starts and ends in Athens. It costs from $4714 a person, based on two sharing, and also includes classic sites such as Mycenae and Delphi, the monasteries of Meteora and the islands of Mykonos and Santorini. See gocollette.com

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