For sports enthusiasts it doesn't get better than leap years. 2004 is no exception, and it all comes together in the summer, with the European Football Championships, Wimbledon, the Tour de France and the Olympic Games.
For Greece, organising the 25th Olympiad is more than a huge international stage for a small nation-it is the home-coming of the Olympic Games. In the wake of their incredible triumph at Euro 2004, Greece will be the centre stage of the world this August, as athletes from across the world compete for Olympic glory under the gaze of the Acropolis and Parthenon. And so, the Olympics return to their spiritual birth ground, to the unique, enigmatic nation that gave the world, and the Western world in particular, so much before receding into centuries of shadow and isolation.
Civilisations, like empires, come and go, but few countries have experienced such highs and lows as Greece. From the most advanced society in the world in the 6th century BC to an impoverished and enslaved nation in the early 19th century, the Greek character has been moulded by extremes of achievement, pain, glory and suffering to produce a nation that is unique in so many ways. Quite apart from the Olympics, therefore, this country is simply a place you must visit in your lifetime. From visiting the astonishing remnants of Classical Greece-a pilgrimage to our own roots-right down the centuries to the lively buzz of its chaotic cities and picturesque islands, Greece is experienced, not merely visited.
As the first nation in Europe to develop a highly sophisticated society, Greece is rightly regarded as the cradle of Western civilisation. Classical Greece was able to flourish because it was in contact with the early centres of civilisation in the Near East, but it added so much to the science, technology and sophistication it absorbed from the East that its culture, in turn, provided the basis for another great civilisation, that of the Romans. In 776 BC, when the first Olympiad is said to have been held, Greece was a mosaic of little states, bound together in coalitions, or Leagues. War between the various Leagues was an intermittent reality, but did not stop Greece from excelling in science, technology, architecture, sculpture and intellectual reasoning, the latter of which produced the ground rules for the democratic principles that we hold so dear today.
According to legend, the Games started when Hercules challenged his four brothers to a race before the gods in the fields of Olympia. From then on, athletic men from across the Greek world could attain heroic status by winning glory for their town or region. The competition, which was held every four-year period, or Olympiad, and which took the form of a festival of sport, was closed to female participants and spectators. This was not because the athletes were nude, but because Olympia was dedicated to Zeus, and therefore restricted to men only. During the track and field events, poets made dedications to new heroes and sculptors created statues in their honour. After Phillippides ran the 41 kilometres from the Bay of Marathon to Athens, with the news that a heavily outnumbered Greek force had defeated the invading Persians, the marathon became the highlight of the classical Olympic Games. Held for almost 1200 years, the Olympics were all but forgotten until 1870, when a German archaeological team discovered the remnants of the ancient Olympian site.
Fascinated by the concept of the Olympic creed of open, fair competition and brotherly sportsmanship, a young French aristocrat called Baron de Coubertin championed the revival of the Games in the modern era, as a means of fomenting international peace and understanding. Thanks to his unrelenting efforts, the first Olympics of the modern era were held in Athens in 1896. The event would prove to be a major moral boost for the Greek monarchy, which had emerged from centuries of ruthless Turkish rule only relatively recently. Founded on humanistic principles of peace and understanding, the Olympic Games were soon hijacked by political interests and nationalistic sentiments, but they have also become huge international events that still carry the torch for peace and fraternity.
In 2004, the past comes together in a unique way in Athens, Europe's most ancient metropolis. Visitors to the Games will be able to alternate sport at the highest level with visits to the many awe-inspiring remnants to the Athens of the first millennium BC. The Acropolis, a huge sprawling complex of temples on which the temple to Athena, the Parthenon, is the main feature, still dominates the city of Athens. There are many other stunning relics of Classical Greece to admire, both within the city and its surroundings, yet Greece's fascinating journey through history also produced the formidable Byzantine Empire. At its height, between the 6th and 14th centuries, the Byzantine Empire was the most advanced and sophisticated part of Europe, and its capital Constantinople-the city we now know as Istanbul-was one of the most magnificent in the world. Although most Byzantine treasures were lost when the Turks overran Constantinople in 1453, a process of de-Hellenisation that reached its sad climax with the killing of over one million Greeks as the Turks ethnically cleansed formerly Greek parts of western Turkey in the early 20th century.
In spite of this, those interested in history and culture will be fascinated by the Byzantine churches, palaces and art treasures that are still to be found in Athens and surroundings, while visitors who prefer to focus on the here and now can revel in the picturesque, lively and occasionally chaotic, but always interesting modern-day city of Athens, with its bohemian cafés, outdoor restaurants and flea markets in suburbs such as Exárcheia and Monastiráki, and cosmopolitan Piraeus, Athens' port city. Greece today still takes pride in its classical and Byzantine heritage, while reflecting many other influences in its everyday life, but as much as the Olympic Games pay tribute to the glories of old, they also represent the passing of a threshold, taking the Greek nation into a new chapter in their history.
The Olympic Games will be held from the 13th to the 29th of August. For more information on programming, flights and accommodation, visit www.athensguide.org
© Michel Cruz