topics: souvlaki (food), Olympic Games, Wonders of the Ancient World, the Greek gods; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: March 20, 1998

Food of the Day: souvlaki (souvlaki, in Greek)

Souvlaki is one of the most commonly eaten Greek foods. Sold as a fast food from little shops on the street or as a dish in tavernas and restaurants, souvlaki is ever present, cheap, and often very, very good. Best described as nearly identical to the sandwich grec or kebabs that we have enjoyed in almost every country we have visited. The souvlaki served on the streets in Greece is usually composed of meat (chicken, beef, or pork) cooked on mini skewers. The meat is stuffed into an open pita bread shell, lettuce and tomato (and perhaps cucumber) are added with a dash of tzatziki and then the whole thing is rolled up for eating. Yum.

Person of the Day: Zeus

Zeus is the greatest of the Olympian gods. He was called the father of gods and men, protector of kings, supporter of law and order, and avenger of broken oaths and other offenses. He stood guard over the nation and the family and over strangers and suppliants. As ruler of the heavens, he wielded lightning and guided the stars, controlled the weather and the seasons and was the force behind everything in nature.

According to mythology, Zeus came to power after a ten-year struggle that ended with him banishing his father, Cronus, and the other Titans, all Cronus' brethren (including Rea), back to the underworld depths of Tartarus from which they had escaped. Before doing so, Zeus forced Cronus to return the children (Zeus' siblings) that Cronus had eaten. For his role in the struggle, Zeus became the first and most powerful of the gods. He nevertheless is believed to have justly shared the rule of the universe with 11 other gods - his released brothers and sisters, and his eldest children: Hades, Poseidon, Hera, Hestia, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Hephaestus, and Artemis.

Place of the Day: Ancient Olympia

The Site of ancient Olympia - a UNESCO-registered World Heritage site visit the World Heritage Site page - is today the place where the Olympic torch is lit. The flame then travels from Olympia by foot in the hands of runners and athletes from many nations until it reaches the stadium of the city hosting the Olympic Games for that year. This is based on the sports event that was begun in this place in 776 BC and was held quadrennial (every four years) until 394 AD. The games were revived in the modern era in 1896 in Athens. The world recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the revived games in Atlanta, Georgia (USA) in 1996. The next Olympic games will be held in Sydney Australia in the year 2000 and then again in Athens (after 108 years) in 2004. (For lots more information about the Olympic Games, see the Tech Fact of the Day.) Olympia is also where the great Temple of Zeus was built and where Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, was worshipped.

Unfortunately, very little remains click to view a photograph of the buildings that covered this lovely wooded vale and played such a significant role in ancient times. Nevertheless, and despite the cold and wet conditions, our visit to the ruins of this ancient archaeological site was pleasant.

The origins of Olympia date back to the 1st millennium BC, Mycenaean times, when the Great Goddess Rea was paramount among the gods. Later, around the 11th century BC and after Zeus had superseded both Rea and his sister-wife Hera, a small religious festival, perhaps involving sports, was begun. Thus the tradition was created that developed into games held in honor of Zeus. These occurred every four years on the first full moon in August.

So, out of respect for the great sports tradition maintained at Olympia, and in order to keep warm, the BikeAbouters limbered up for an athletic visit to the grounds. Ethan and Anthony, like the Titans pitted against the Gods (see Person of the Day, were most eager to indulge in competitive displays of feats of great strength and dexterity.

Our path first brought us alongside the 2nd-century BC gymnasium that shows little of what it once was. More enticing, however, was the Palaestra click to view a photograph, or wrestling school, just beyond it. Here, in the first of the day's contests, unbeaten Ethan the Titan wrestled undefeated Anthony the Giant to a standstill tie. click to view a photograph

Realizing that one or the other would need the support of the gods to deal the conclusive defeat that would decide the day, Anthony and Ethan proceeded to the Theokoleon, or priests' house, to seek counsel. click to view a photograph There they discovered Padraic the Ph.D. click to view a photograph, wise in the way of all things and ready - for a small tribute of great quantities of food - to offer advice to the needy. click to view a photograph While Anthony slipped off to a far wall and counted the loose change in his pocket, Ethan plied Padraic with all the necessary tributes and offerings. click to view a photograph

As a threesome, they moved across the grounds passed the Leonidaion, once an elegant structure click to view a photograph where dignitaries used to reside during the games. There they picked up a witness, Corinne, and proceeded to the Altis, or Sacred Precinct of Zeus with its centerpiece: the Temple of Zeus.

All that remains today of the Temple of Zeus are the foundation click to view a photograph and random structural pieces click to view a photograph of the fifth century BC structure that was once the greatest temple to this greatest of the gods. This building in fact once held one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (click here for a clue as to what the other six are, five of which Corinne has had the pleasure to see!), a 12-meter- (39-foot-) high statue of Zeus (see the Person of the Day). Unfortunately, this masterpiece, sculpted by Pheidias whose workshop we visited on the grounds, was later carted off to Constantinople where it was destroyed by fire.

The only thing left that gives us an idea of the scale of the building and statue are pieces of the thirteen fallen columns click to view a photograph that used to support the roof. We wondered if, when they fell, they collapsed into the bread-slice sections as they currently are click to view a photograph, or if, after excavation, archaeologists had sorted out the pieces and set them up...

Regardless of the temple's conditions, Padraic the Ph.D. here counseled Anthony and Ethan to make their offerings to Zeus and gave Ethan the extra bit of advice as a measure of his thanks for Ethan's earlier generosity. Following Padraic's winking suggestion, Ethan gladly ceded the right of first worship to Anthony. Anthony, jumping at the occasion to trump Ethan from the start, proudly displayed to Zeus the size of the rock he, Anthony, would move as proof of his ever-lasting devotion. click to view a photograph Ethan, seeing his chance, walked directly over to a monumental piece of fallen column, and silently rolled it back to where it belonged. click to view a photograph Ethan instantly won Zeus' esteem.

Without Zeus backing him up, and smelling the imminence of a dangerous loss, Anthony moved quickly to the great Olympic stadium to demonstrate his prowess in the track and field events. Stealing the hat off a spectator's hand he proceeded to "hurl" it like a discus click to view a photograph an incredible distance (especially since it was only a hat). But Zeus was not impressed. A real discus weighs close to 2 kg (4½ lbs). The hat Anthony had thrown weighed only a few ounces/grams. Meanwhile, Ethan had patiently taken position at the start click to view a photograph of the 200-meter- (656-foot-) long stadium that could once hold 30,000 onlookers. click to view a photograph Like a flash, and with a little help from Zeus, as soon as Anthony's "discus" had landed, Ethan was off and across the distance to retrieve the hat and return it to the cold-nipped onlooker.

Beaten but not dejected, and always a gentleman, Anthony had to acknowledge the wisdom of Padraic's advice to Ethan, as well as the virtue of having Zeus as an ally. Never the poor loser, he bowed respectfully (as did Ethan) to Padraic the Ph.D. click to view a photograph and then posed with his vanquisher and the sage click to view a photograph under the only remaining arch leading to the ancient stadium. click to view a photograph

With the sports events of the day having been concluded, and the weather no warmer or drier than when the day had begun, the BikeAbout foursome turned back toward town, passing along the way the remains of the Temple of Hera (once used in tribute to both her and the Great Goddess Rea). click to view a photograph They also passed the elegant fountain structure called the Nymphaeum commissioned by Herodes Atticus, who also had a theater built in his name at the theater at the Acropolis in Athens). Finally they took a quick glance at the remains of the Philippeion built by Philip of Macedon to commemorate his 4th century BC defeat of the allied Greek armies.

Tech Fact of the Day: Olympic Games

Many things about the Olympic Games of the past have been changed to meet the needs of athletes (and spectators) today.

For instance, first and foremost, the ancient games were held exclusively for Greek men. This meant that women were not allowed to join the fracas (or even watch it from within the stadium). In fact, those women who did take part were actually thrown from a rock. Fortunately, the times have changed and today's Olympics include events for everyone.

As far as reward is concerned, the victors of the past received olive tree wreaths made from a sacred olive tree growing behind the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. (According to tradition, Hercules, founder of the games, had planted the tree.) These winners then paraded around the grounds with a flute accompaniment while admiring spectators sang songs written by poets. That kind of reward probably didn't make the grade in 1896, when the tradition of gold, silver, and bronze medals was instituted.

With regard to the sports events themselves, the original Olympic Games were held over a five-day period and, at first only had one event called the stadium (a 200-yard/183-meter dash). By 708, though, the games had expanded to include longer races (2 stadium lengths and 24 stadium lengths), wrestling, chariot racing, horse racing, the pentathlon (running, wrestling, leaping, throwing the discus, and hurling the javelin), and the pancratium (essentially boxing/wrestling without padded gloves). Today, the two-to-three week Games are held in both summer and winter venues. Summer sports include archery, basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, horseback riding, fencing, field hockey, gymnastics, handball, judo, rowing, shooting, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field (including the marathon, the decathlon and pentathlon for the men, and the heptathlon for the women), volleyball, water polo, weight lifting, wrestling, and yachting. Winter sports include skating, skiing, bobsledding, luge, tobogganing, ice hockey, and the biathlon (skiing-shooting).

The scheduling has also changed quite a bit to accommodate the interest expressed by people from every nation of the world in the symbolic and concrete importance of the event. For instance, the Games are no longer just held in Greece, the honor and privilege of hosting the international competition now falls to different cities that actually bid against and negotiate with one another for the special right. Also, Winter Olympic Games were added in 1924, although. after 1992, it was decided that the Winter and Summer Games should be held alternately every two years. Thus the Winter Games were in 1994, after only two years (to pull it out of sync with the Summer Games), and then held every four years thereafter.

For a schedule of the modern Olympic Games past, present and future, see the chart below:

Athens, Greece

Paris, France

St. Louis, Mo.

Athens, Greece

London, England

Stockholm, Sweden

Antwerp, Belgium

Paris, France
Chamonix, France

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
St. Moritz, Switzerland

Los Angeles, California (U.S.A.)
Lake Placid, N.Y. (U.S.A.)

Berlin, Germany
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

London, England
St. Moritz, Switzerland

Helsinki, Finland
Oslo, Norway

Melbourne, Australia
Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy

Rome, Italy
Squaw Valley, California (U.S.A.)

Tokyo, Japan
Innsbruck, Austria

Mexico City, Mexico
Grenoble, France

Munich, West Germany
Sapporo, Japan

Montreal, Quebec (Canada)
Innsbruck, Austria

Moscow, U.S.S.R.
Lake Placid, N.Y. (U.S.A.)

Los Angeles, Calif.
Sarajevo, Yugoslavia

Seoul, South Korea
Calgary, Alberta (Canada)

Barcelona, Spain
Albertville, France

(no summer games)
Lillehammer, Norway

Atlanta, Georgia (U.S.A.)
(no winter games)

(no summer games)
Nagano, Japan

Sydney, Australia
(no winter games)

(no summer games)
Salt Lake City, Utah (U.S.A.)

Athens, Greece
(no winter games)

Finally, while the spirit of the Games - to encourage the ideal of a solid mind in a sound body - has been preserved to the best possible degree, the Games have not been entirely free of political problems. For the most part, the original Games were great social gatherings, used for peaceful competition... and a host of other things. Scholars of the times - writers, poets and historians - read from their material before large gatherings. Traders met and worked out great business negotiations. And most importantly, city-state leaders could sit together in a safe environment devoted to festivity. For one brief period every four years, differences could easily be resolved without a clash of armies.

Similarly, today, the Olympic Games coincide with great Olympic Festivals, that include every possible kind of celebration. Still, and not surprisingly, there have been troubles. For example, all Olympic Games were cancelled in 1916 due to World War I, and in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II. At the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, West Germany, Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympic team members. The 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, Quebec were boycotted by some 30 African countries in protest against New Zealand's rugby team's tour of South Africa. Similarly, the United States and more than 60 other countries refused to participate in the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow given the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In response, the Soviet Union sent no participants to the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Still, the Olympic Games are special. Fewer than 500 athletes from 13 countries attended the first Olympic games in Athens in 1896. By 1988, a record total of 160 countries sent athletes to the Summer Games in Seoul, Korea. More than 10,000 athletes participated at the Munich games in 1972 and almost 5.8 million spectators (a record number) attended the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Similarly, participation in the International Olympic Committee, the group responsible for organizing and governing the Games, has expanded from an original core of 14 members to more than 70. The individuals sitting on the Committee are widely respected as ambassadors from the committee to their national sports organizations and are dedicated to promoting amateur athletics. (Incidentally, any country wishing to send athletes to the Games must have its own National Olympic Committee. In 1988, the world saw 167 such committees!)

[Webmaster's Note: If you would like to find out more about the Olympic Games, we encourage you to visit the official Web site of the International Olympic Committee.]

Group Dispatch, March 20
picture of Ethan

When the sun poked over the surrounding hills, it brought light into the sleepy valley and the dream-clogged brains of the BikeAbout foursome. Everyone's sleep had been deep and sound, especially Ethan's who had spent most of yesterday post-ride in bed, giving in to whatever evil has inhabited his intestines and made the thought or sight of food unpleasant. You have to imagine how extreme a situation this is. Food is something that Ethan usually looks forward to with great enthusiasm. For him to shy away from the very mention of it is bad sign indeed.

But this morning saw him eager to eat something. Well, this morning saw him with no choice but to eat, since, with the exception of a bowl of soup, he hadn't really eaten anything since the late dinner in Tripoli. Unfortunately, there was a small financial crisis. None of us had expected Langadia to be as small as it was. None of us had expected to find that the nearest bank was 59 km away in Olympia, our destination for today, and not a place from which any of us would be eager to return. None of us had expected to find that even the post office was unable to change money for lack of funds. And, of course, although we had Greek money with which to pay the hotel bill and last night's dinner (for Corinne, Padraic and Anthony), there was practically nothing left over for breakfast. Fortunately, after a little convincing, the people at the hotel agreed to accept some American cash thus making a light breakfast possible.

The ride down from Langadia was a joy. For down it was. Hugging the sides of valley, the road twisted, turned, and curved through hillside brush click to view a photograph, down across mid-elevation greenery click to view a photograph, and into deep and lush valley forests. click to view a photograph While we felt at ease, pleased with the welcoming weather and unhindered by traffic, there were plenty of the constant roadside mini-chapels to remind us how treacherous the road could be. click to view a photograph These mini-chapels litter the roads of Greece as memorials to people who lost their lives on the road. We thought of an article Anthony had read ranking Greece first in the European Union in deaths caused by driving accidents.

By very early afternoon, a cold rain had begun to fall. Ethan, still pretty weak (from both hunger and lingering infirmity, was the caboose of the pack, and caught up with Padraic and Anthony in small café-restaurant with steaming hot stove. And we mean literally steaming hot. At a few feet from the stove, we could see the steam from our water-soaked clothes rising off of us. Over a hot tea, we dried off and settled down for the last 5 km (3 mi) into Olympia. Apparently, Corinne had already gone on ahead and we would meet her in town.

Sure enough, after a quick spin through more rolling valley, we arrived in Olympia and found Corinne who gave a quick review of hotel options. Ethan darted off to change money before the banks closed, and then we chose a hotel, unloaded our bags, and changed into whatever dry, relatively clean stuff we had after so many days of tough weather. The serious chill and an early afternoon hunger (for Ethan compounded by too long without a real meal) drove them all to a nearby restaurant (unfortunately unheated) for a badly needed lunch. Huddled over their food they hoped in vain that the rain might stop.

Despite no improvement in the weather, and our stern conviction that although the official start to spring was still two days off, it had begun early click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, the rest of the afternoon was devoted to our romp through the nearby archaeological site of ancient Olympia, one of the Greek, UNESCO-registered World Heritage sites visit the World Heritage Site page, and our last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (only six of which we have had the opportunity to ponder - do you remember what they are?... For a hint, click here).

For information about our time in Olympia, please see the Place of the Day.

With the evening came increasing cold and damp. We sought refuge in our hotel rooms, but, because we were two rooms alternately sharing one heater, at least two of us were always cold. So, around dinnertime, we found a nice warm restaurant, enjoyed another Olympian meal, and then tucked ourselves deep under a pile of blankets for maximum warmth and comfortable slumber.

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