By Judith Swaddling
Last updated 2011-02-17
The ancient Olympic Games were always held at Olympia in the western Peloponnese. Here, at the heart of the sacred precinct of Zeus, stood the magnificent Temple of Zeus, the chief god of Greek mythology, who was believed to bestow on athletes the prowess and skills that enabled them to excel in sport, and was thus inextricably bound up with the ancient Games. Among the remarkable works of art the temple once housed was the magnificent 13m-high gold and ivory cult statue of Zeus designed by Pheidias, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world (now destroyed).
The image shown here is taken from the British Museum's model of ancient Olympia. The real temple took ten years to build and was completed in 456 BC. The people of Elis, who controlled the Olympic Games, financed its construction with spoils taken during hostilities with neighbouring peoples.
The temple gave the appearance of being constructed completely of marble, but in fact it was only the roof that was made of Pentelic marble - from the quarries near Athens - and the rest was made of local conglomerate stone covered in stucco. Its vast columns, over 2m in diameter and over 10m high, now lie toppled where they fell in a massive earthquake in about the sixth century AD. The site had always been prone to earthquakes, and the mystique of the area may have been responsible for the choice of the site as a sacred area - way back in prehistory.
Over the centuries the sanctuary became densely populated with temples, shrines and altars - all standing in close proximity to facilities constructed for the Games, such as the stadium, horse-track, gymnasium and palaistra (where participants could practice wrestling and the long jump).