THE LEGEND BEHIND THE GAMES (Illustration) Famous Historical Events Geography Social Studies Ancient Places and/or Civilizations Fiction Sports

Four-horse chariot races, running 12 rounds (about 14 km), became part of the Olympics circa 680 B.C. It was the first equestrian event of the ancient games. Because turns were to the left, the right-outer horse had to be fastest of the team. This image depicts an amphora, c. 420-400 B.C., showing a four-horse chariot in a turning maneuver.  The owner of the horses, not the charioteer, was the official Olympics participant (and, if the team won, was declared the victor).  Image online via KU Leuven (Belgium’s largest university).


Oinomaos (Oenomaus) was a legendary king of Pisa (an area not far from Elis in the western part of Greece). His daughter Hippodameia, of marriageable age, had many suitors with whom Oinomaos was not always pleased.

He had reason to worry. An oracle had warned Oinomaos that he would die at the hand of his son-in-law.

Boastful of his chariot-racing skills, Oinomaos issued a legendary challenge. He would determine the worth of any potential son-in-law by testing his racing skills.

If the king failed to overtake any of his daughter's suitors in a chariot race between Olympia to the Isthmus of Corinth (where ships were moved overland in ancient times but now travel through the man-made Corinthian Canal), the victorious racer could marry Hippodameia.

However ... if any suitor lost the race, he would die.

Many erstwhile suitors had already lost their heads to the sword of Oinomaos. The king, an expert charioteer, thought he would never lose a race. Then love interfered.

Desiring to marry a handsome man named Pelops, Hippodameia approached her father's charioteer, Myrtilus (Myrsilos), with a devious plan. If her father's chariot were missing a linchpin from one of its wheels, she could fix the outcome of the race between her father and her suitor.

Myrtilus, also in love with Hippodameia, agreed to betray the king. He loosened the linchpin so the wheel would break free from the axle. (Note that some of the legends say it was Pelops who concocted the plan.)

With Oinomaos holding the reins of his horses, attempting to overtake the speeding chariot in front of him, his chariot wheels fell away. According to one version of the story, the king was caught in the reins and was dragged to death. Another version says that Pelops killed him.

In either event, Oinomaos lost both control and his life.

Pelops won the day and the bride. He also became king and, after conquering nearby Apia and Pelasgiotis, named the entire region after himself. The southern part of the Greek mainland is called the Peloponnese (or Peloponnesus, meaning Island of Pelops) to this day.

To honor Zeus (whose statue at Olympia, later sculpted by Pheidias, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) and to celebrate the life of Oinomaos (after his death), Pelops organized commemorative games to be held in Olympia. It was the beginning of a thousand-year tradition in the ancient Greek world.

According to legend, it was also the beginning of a curse on Pelops' family.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jun 01, 2005

Updated Last Revision: Jun 10, 2019

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"THE LEGEND BEHIND THE GAMES" AwesomeStories.com. Jun 01, 2005. Jan 26, 2020.
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