Reviving the Panathenaic Stadium for the Olympic Games
The Panathenaic Stadium is a historical monument located in Athens, Greece. Although the current structure was only built at the end of the 1800s, the current stadium was built on a site once occupied by an ancient Greek stadium where the Panathenaic Games were held once every four years. Thanks to the perseverance of a few passionate souls, the Panathenaic Stadium was restored to a version of its former glory when the Olympic Games were revived at the end of the 19 th century.
Aerial view of the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. ( Dimitrios / Adobe Stock)
From Humble Racecourse to Marble-Clad Panathenaic Stadium
The Panathenaic Stadium is known also as Kalimarmaro, which translates to mean “Beautiful Marble.” It is unique in that it is built entirely of marble, although it hasn’t always been a marble structure. Initially, the site was occupied by a simple racecourse and it was only during the 4 th century BC that the first stadium was built on the site.
Around 330 BC, the Athenian orator Lycurgus built the stadium on the site of the racecourse so as to provide a suitable venue for the Panathenaic Games which were held once every four years. With the exception of the Panhellenic Games, these were the most prestigious games for the ancient Athenians, and the stadium built by Lycurgus was meant to reflect this fact.
It was built of limestone and had a rectangular shape, which is typical of other ancient Greek stadiums. The entrance was on one end of the stadium, whilst the other three sides had seats for spectators.
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The Panathenaic Stadium retained its importance during the Roman period . For instance, it is said that on the occasion of Hadrian’s inauguration in 120 AD, a thousand wild animals were sacrificed in the stadium. Around 140 AD, the stadium was renovated by Herodes Atticus, an Athenian who made it to the highest echelons of Roman society.
It was during these renovations that the seats were covered with marble sourced from the nearby Mount Pentelicus. Apart from that, the layout of the stadium was changed from the original rectangle to a horseshoe shape, which is typical of Roman stadiums. A propylon was also added at the stadium’s entrance. The renovated stadium could accommodate up to 50,000 spectators.
Reconstruction of the Panathenaic Stadium before the 1896 Olympic Games. ( Panathenaic Stadium )
Bringing the Panathenaic Stadium Back from Its Former Glory
As a consequence of Christianity’s rise, the Panathenaic Stadium was eventually abandoned. The Panathenaic Games, incidentally, ceased to be held in the 3 rd century AD. Unlike some of the other ancient monuments in Athens, the Panathenaic Stadium seems to have not been reused for other purposes in the millennium and a half that followed. Therefore, the stadium fell into disrepair and it was only during the 19 th century that the Panathenaic Stadium was revived.
In 1830, Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Soon after, excavations were carried out at the site of the Panathenaic Stadium. In spite of the excavations, the site was not destined to become an archaeological attraction. In 1894, a congress aimed at reviving the Olympic Games was organized by the Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin. It was agreed that the Olympics would be held in 1900 in Paris, to coincide with the Paris Exposition, which was to be held in the same year.
The Panathenaic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1896 Summer Olympics. ( Public domain )
The Greek representative, Dmitrios Vikelas, saw this as an opportunity, and suggested that the Olympic Games be hosted by Athens in 1896. Although the congress accepted the proposal, Vikelas had actually made the suggestion on his own, without his government’s backing or consent. To make matters worse, the Greek government had declared bankruptcy the year before, and was therefore not financially able to host the Olympic Games. In spite of these difficulties, Vikelas refused to budge, as he felt that hosting the first modern Olympic Games in Athens would be a great honor for Greece.
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Fortunately for Vikelas, his views were supported by Crown Prince Constantine. Through the efforts of these two men, they managed to obtain the aid of George Averoff, a wealthy Greek businessman who was based in Egypt, and one of the country’s biggest benefactors. Averoff agreed to finance the reconstruction of the Panathenaic Stadium. The new stadium was to be constructed entirely out of Pentelic marble, and, despite complications to the work, it was completed in time for the 1896 Olympic Games . Averoff has been honored at the Panathenaic Stadium with a portrait of the man carved into the marble to the right of the entrance.
The new Panathenaic Stadium is able to accommodate up to 70,000 spectators, which, unfortunately, is not enough by modern standards. Thus, when the Olympic Games were held in Athens in 2004, the stadium was used only for archery and the marathon finish.
In the present day, the stadium is also used occasionally for concerts and public events. The Panathenaic Stadium is open to the public all year round, but there is an entrance fee to the site. The ticket fee includes an audio tour which lasts between 10 and 20 minutes and exists in ten different languages.
Top image: Panathenaic Stadium. Source: samott / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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