Greece: Ancient athletics at Olympia, Marathon

Second of three parts.

Our Athens taxi driver isn’t much for small talk as we head from port to city centre on a spring weekday. Language differences present a challenge, until I ask:

Do you know Giannis, the basketball player?

That gets the cabbie’s attention. He grins and offers a quizzical, of-all-the-questions-to-ask look. “Very nice player,” he says.

I explain that Giannis – Giannis Antetokounmpo, who leads the Milwaukee Bucks in post-season NBA play – lives in the same U.S. state as me. And that the people in my state are very proud of him.

The driver nods and, as though on cue, points out Peace and Friendship Stadium. The eye-catching and futuristic-looking arena, built in 1985, is home to numerous basketball and world championship events. That includes 2004 Olympic volleyball play.

Has Giannis played there?

“No – our team was very bad, terrible,” is the reply. Then he asks if I know Rick Pitino, the former NCAA basketball coach now at work in Greece. His team in Athens won the Greek Cup Championship recently.

A different taxi driver knows of Giannis too. I ask about the neighborhood where the superstar grew up and am told the immigrant area – Antetokounmpo is of Nigeria descent – has nothing for the average tourist to see.

Sepolia is the area where his parents landed in the early 1990s and where Giannis was born three years later.

Our Athens-based tour guide, who says she is not a big sports fan, knows the athlete’s story too. Is there a way to follow his growth and footsteps here? No, she says, because so much attention is given to the country’s and city’s many, significant archeological treasures.

Here are three that deal with athletic competition.

The downpour – no, deluge – begins shortly before we reach an ancient running track. We have traveled 200 miles from Athens to get to Olympia and the site of the first Olympics, which dates back to at least 716 BC.

Back then, a reference to “stadium” meant “stadion,” one lap on the track, which was not oval but a 200-yard running strip of packed clay. Today, when weather cooperates, visitors run the back-and-forth course – but on this day big puddles and slick spots drown the momentum for almost all of us.

Stadion runs were among the first Olympic events, the competition happened every four years, and all was done in honor of Zeus, father of the gods in Greek mythology. Athletes arrived a month early for training, all were men, and they competed naked. Chariot racing was the exception.

Competitors boxed with no weight classification or time limit on matches. They wrestled while standing and covered in olive oil. A runner’s false start meant corporal punishment. A winner’s reward was a crown made of olive leaves – and immediate elevation in social standing.

A single, square slab of stone at this UNESCO World Heritage Site still marks the award platform for an event’s sole winner. Much of the rest of the 260-acre complex of buildings is ruins because of earthquakes, and the passage of time. It was a center for worship and monuments as well as athletic competition.

Within a quick walk is the Archaeological Museum of Olympic, whose artifacts include sculptures in fragments from the ancient Temple of Zeus and remains from the marble Nike of Paionios, a symbol of victory (and, subsequently, all that athletic apparel containing a winglike swoosh in her honor). olympia-greece.org/museum

One of the surprises about roaming Athens is how much of historic importance lies within a walk. That includes Panathenaic Stadium, constructed in the 4th century BC, then neglected and reconstructed.

The structure that stands now was built in 1896. Tiers of marble seating circle the 204-meter track. Travelers come to run the track, or to simply climb to the top and take a seat. The surface can be slick, and there are no railings.

The stadium was the finish line for the 2004 Olympic marathon run in Greece. The annual Marathon marathon ends here too. panathenaicstadium.gr

The community of Marathon, population 7,100, is northeast of Athens and the starting point for a messenger to begin his run to proclaim the Greeks’ Battle of Marathon victory over the Persians long ago.

The Marathon Run Museum is about both the battle and artifacts from athletic competition. Historic and modern-day marathon runs get their due; an exhibit about international marathons notes that more than 800 happen every year. marathonrunmuseum.com

“When you run the Athens Marathon, you run in the footsteps of the ancient gods and heroes that gave birth to western civilization,” explains athensmarathon.com. The 26.2-mile course, now all asphalt, starts flat and then moves to hilly terrain before heading downhill to Panathenaic Stadium.

The next is Nov. 10. Registration opened in mid April, and participation is limited to 20,000. athensauthenticmarathon.gr

This trip to Greece was one part Aegean Sea cruise (compliments of Celestyal Cruises), one part anonymous touring with Gate 1 Travel and one part independent travel. celestyalcruises.com, gate1travel.com