It’s 8.30am. We’re standing in the gardens outside the stately Zappeion Congress Hall (my nine-year-old thinks it looks like a “lemon mini-Parthenon”). Tonia’s comments set the tone as we embark on an engrossing two-hour romp that’s two-parts physical workout; one-part history lesson. It’s certainly like no tour I’ve ever been on. The goal? To connect our bodies and minds to experience the essence of the Olympic philosophy for ourselves. And to have fun while doing it.
Tonia involves the children in a brief discussion on what the defining values of the Olympic Games might be (we land upon Peace, Fair Play, and Universality). Then, we’re off, running some warm-up laps around the huge fountain at the centre of the garden square with the other eight people on our tour, and performing agility exercises on the steps of the 19th century Zappeion hall.
Gifted to the city by Evangelis Zappas (who sadly, never lived long enough to see it completed), this neoclassical landmark was built specifically for the revival of the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896—fifteen centuries after they were first held in ancient Olympia. Tonia reveals the rather grisly legacy that Evangelis Zappas left inside the Zappeion atrium. I won’t spoil the surprise, suffice to say it was my kids’ favourite fact of the day.
A short walk through the gardens and we’re at the 19th century gymnasium and sports park, Fokianos, opposite the Panathenaic stadium. This great urban secret houses a running track, basketball court and football pitch that are free to the public to use (various sports and fitness teams also offer paid training sessions for adults and children). In the leafy corner café, athletes and students drink smoothies and coffees. A spritely crew of old guys play a fast-moving game of basketball centre-court. “They’re here every day of the year,” Tonia tells us.
We learn about Ioannis Fokianos, a driving force behind the revival of the Olympic Games. A physics and mathematics graduate, he trained athletes for the first modern Olympics right here.
“In ancient Greece, athletes were also warriors and they used to train in gymnasiums just like this,” says Tonia. “Gymnasium comes from the Greek word, gymnos, which means naked in Greek—because the athletes were all naked. But women weren’t allowed to be athletes.”
My two daughters are not impressed. But it’s our cue to get physical. Tonia runs us through some techniques used in classic Olympic events. We test the weight of a real javelin in our hands. I’m expecting the heft of a jousting stick but it’s actually more like an enormous knitting needle—and really tricky to keep level. When it comes to the actual throwing, we’re demoted to foam javelins (imagine the health and safety issues, otherwise).
Next, it’s the discus.
“Do you throw it like a Frisbee?” asks my nine-year-old, when it’s her turn. Laughing, Tonia patiently demonstrates the correct hold, which again, feels very peculiar because you’re not allowed to use your thumb.
Last, we attempt the shot put.
“Well done, Mum,’ exclaims my 12-year-old.
I’ve surprised myself by managing to hurl the heaviest 4kg shot farther than quite a few of the men in our group. Take that founding fathers.
Now we’re standing across the road in the world’s only all-marble stadium, imagining the roar of millennia-old crowds (and reaching for our sunglasses). Tonia tells us that in ancient times the stadium hosted competitions like the Colosseum in Rome.
“Were there lions too?” asks my youngest. Tonia smiles. “There were no lions. Or Christians.”
“In the ancient Olympics, there were no prizes or medals either,” she continues. “It was about the honour of winning. A wreath, or kotinos, made of wild olive branches from Olympia, was placed around the winner’s head; they would be welcomed home like a returning general to show that the Olympic champion was strong enough to defend the city.”
Tonia connects the dots between the original arena, first used in the ancient Panathenaic festival in 566 BC, and the more lavish arena built here in Pentelic marble by Herodes Atticus; to the stunning 60,000-seater replica of today, restored by Greek benefactor Georgios Averof and used to re-launch the modern Olympic Games.
It’s the perfect spot to hear about the heroic origins of the Athens Marathon: every year, this world-famous race ends right where we stand. (Spoiler alert: it was a courier, Phidippides, who first ran the 42km from Marathon to Athens in 490BC to deliver news of the city’s victory against the Persian army).
Soon, it’s time for our end game: a chance to fly around this epic track ourselves and to pose on the winners’ podium for pictures.
“As an athlete, I’ve seen in people’s eyes how important the Olympic values are,” says Tonia. “As a Greek, I want to share this with visitors to our country.”
Top tip: Save some energy for climbing the steep steps of the stadium before you go. You’ll be rewarded with an Olympian view of the Acropolis and the city.
What’s the verdict?
I would have liked to hear more about the history surrounding the Games: like the fact that Plato was a wrestling fan or the Olympic torch tradition. But it was terrific to see my daughters so involved in this novel learning experience that’s a perfect fit for families and active types.
- Duration: 2 hours
- Cost: €45 (doesn’t include €5 entry to the stadium)
- Time: 8.30am Mondays-Sundays.