"Greece is full of wonderful sights and stories, but nowhere is the aura of divinity so powerful as during ...the Olympic games."--Pausanias, description of Greece, circa A.D. 160.

So little is now saved from what was Olympia, where the first Olympic games were held. The site is nestled in the Peloponnesus peninsula, 210 miles southwest of Athens.

As a young girl growing up in Greece, I visited the grounds [ see slideshow

] and was filled with awe remembering what took place there. Among the fallen columns of great temples, among purple wildflowers, olive and pine trees, remain evocative ruins of the great games.

Plans show us that there were the temple

and altar of Zeus, the god of the sky, in whose honor the games were conducted. There were the temple and altar of Hera, for whom women runners competed in games called the Heraia; the temple and altar of Rhea, Zeus's mother; the great statue of Zeus; the altar of Demeter, goddess of the earth and fertility; and the retaining wall of the river Lades. For the games, there was a stadium

, a gymnasium, the palaistra

for combat and jumping, bathing facilities, a swimming pool, and the starting gate of the horseraces. In front of the Temple of Zeus, atop a pillar thirty feet high, was the striking statue of the goddess Nike, goddess of Victory (yes, the one for whom the shoes are named). Standing amid the ruins of this great place, I could still sense its aura: the cheers of the crowds, the excitement. For the ancient Greeks, the games at Olympia were a high point in their lives. They looked forward all year to being part of this festival. Forty thousand spectators of all walks of society--from aristocrats to fishermen, mathematicians to illiterate men, poets to philosophers--all but married women were allowed to attend.

But sporting events were only a part of the five-day festival. The place would also be filled with prostitutes who made a year's wages in five days. Men were known to enjoy lavish drinking parties. There were kissing competitions for boys only, beauty contests, orators, erotic dance performances, palm readers, masseurs offering services to tired spectators, Homer-reading competitions, eating contests, and premieres of new plays. And a hundred oxen were butchered and sacrificed in honor of Zeus.

So what was the pull that made this one of the most desirable events to attend--not only among the Greeks, but all over the world? People would travel for days to get there, sailing and risking storms at sea. Once at the games, they dealt with heat, crowds, noise, plagues of flies--complete physical discomfort. The Athenian philosopher Epictetus compared the Olympic games to life: each one is filled with challenges, but "you put up with it because it's an unforgettable spectacle." Maybe it's worth all the discomfort when you get to have a moment with the gods.
The Greeks, in their reverence for the gods, believed that something bigger than themselves gave humans strength and endurance. The athletes would make libations at the gods' shrines, paying homage and giving offerings before they entered the games. Unlike the gods' other endeavors, where the immortals would play favorites with humans, the gods did not interfere with the games. They had to let the athletes win victory by their merits. Yet athletes did believe that Zeus, patron of the games, empowered them himself and gave them extra strength to compete. Zeus admired the sporting events from his celestial seat--he was known to follow the results as keenly as mortals. And great honors were paid to him. His altar was packed with athletes on the floor, praying to him for blessings and arguing their case so they could win. Thanks to the god, the competitors could reach unimaginable heights of body, mind, and spirit in the games. Even today, isn't that really what these Olympics are all about? Moments of experiencing the enormous potential of the body through the discipline of the mind. An event where we spectators feel we can touch and be with the gods for a brief moment of time. As we watch Tom Pappas run, jump, and throw in the Decathlon, Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps cut through the water, Venus Williams launch her unstoppable serve, we feel the magnificent symmetry, balance, and perfection of Apollo, god of the Sun and of sports. We understand the boldness and focus of Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt; the excellence and perseverance of Athena, goddess of strength and wisdom; and the passion of Aphrodite driving these men and women to compete and to endure.
In watching athletes strive to reach beyond the boundaries of the human condition, we see in them the spirit of Hermes, patron of athletes and winged-sandal messenger of the gods, who traveled faster than the wind.

How do we tap this same spiritual power? In the 1925 Olympics, Scottish evangelical Eric Liddell, whose victory in the 400-meter race was portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire

, asked, "Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?" He answered himself: "From within."

Whatever the gold is for each one of us, let's honor this spirit within. Let's sacrifice ten thousand "I can'ts" and "I won'ts" to the gods, raise the bar, and win the gold for ourselves. As the 2004 Olympics begin in Greece, let's open ourselves to receive the gifts of the gods!

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