A Tourist at Olympia
After hiking several miles through the Greek outback the afternoon before, I arrived with the rest of the tour group at eight a.m. in the forests of the western Peloponese at Olympia. The guide herded our sunglassed group down the dusty road, flanked by millenia-weathered stone pillars and walls. The dry heat of the Greek summer morning and the inevitable lecture brought on an immediate lethargy. The tour guide displayed endless fluency in the history and anecdotes of the ancient place. I actually learned many things, including the fact that the Olympic games had proceeded almost unhindered for a thousand years. I listened, fascinated, to the fact that the missing statues on the pillars leading down the hill to the stadium were of the cheaters, forever immortalized in infamy and disgrace.
But after a while I stopped absorbing information and wandered off, snapping photos of giant stone wheels and blocks that were scattered about the place by lazy archaeologists. I amused myself by trying to gauge how much they weighed and if I could move them. But even that wore on me as the guide droned on, standing in the center of the lifeless road leading into the stadium. I flopped under an olive tree until the group started shuffling down the brown path again. I felt disconnected from everything there and found myself wishing I had sneaked in at dawn and seen the place in solitude. This was Olympia, the sacred heart of physical culture in the Western World! It should be a place of reverent pilgrimage, not of disinterested photo-snapping and rote lectures.
Finally, the guide let us roam about. The group threaded through the amazing, mythic stone arch into the stadium. But then everyone stood around taking more photos of the gentle green slopes and packed earth. I chafed. Then, a brilliant idea speared down. “All right, who’s going to race me?” I stepped onto the raised starting line, which still nudged out of the dirt after all those centuries. Another guy from our tour took the challenge immediately, taking a place next to me. His wife enthusiastically yelled, “Go!” And we were off, sprinting like the wind one hundred and ninety two meters to the end. Wind whistled past my ears and sun streamed unhindered into my soul. I won the race, achieving a seemingly effortless speed. We shook hands and stumbled back to the crowd amidst congratulations and cheers.
Of course, this suddenly seemed like the thing to do and other races started amongst the several tour groups standing around. But I marched back to the gymnasium, which we had passed earlier. Once there, I decided to rep out on pushups, not having any barbells to heave around. So, I put my feet up against a three-thousand-year-old pillar, put my face into the dirt, and went for it. What a rush! There, in the place where the Olympic athletes prepared for hundreds of years, I strained my muscles, heaving my body skyward to the gods. Power flowed through me and I attained a new personal record.
Olympia had suddenly become a place of living pilgrimage for me, not a lifeless museum. The distinction was small but vital. That day I made a pledge to stop sightseeing and begin sightdoing. To become an active participant in creating memories, rather than a passive observer. There were places to bring to life all over the world.
I would never be a tourist again.