In the most ancient of olden times, King
Oenomaus was the tyrant who ruled the Olympian valley and surrounding territory.
Like all fabled kings, Oenomaus had a daughter of incomparable beauty; like the
others, he felt that no man was good enough for that daughter. Suitors came
seeking her hand. Oenomaus had a trick of his own for disposing of these
unwanted men, anxious to plight a troth with the daughter, Hippodameia. King
Oenomaus, a strong athlete with agility and a superb master of the chariot race,
challenged each suitor to a physical contest. The agreement was that each suitor
could try to best the king-father, but should the suitor lose, he forfeited his
Such a challenge deterred many suitors; but there were others who so coveted the
fair Hippodameia, and her father's rich kingdom, that they accepted the terms of
the king. None won. All died. All died, that is, until a Phrygian prince, named
Pelops, came along. He used his conniving mind as well as his magnificently
trained body, accepted the king's offer, and asked that the contest be a chariot
race. In the light of the full moon in September, Pelops met the king's
charioteer, Myrtilus, under the wild olive trees on the Hill of Kronos. There
the dastardly Pelops offered a bag of gold to the traitorous Myrtilus if, on the
next morning, the charioteer would loosen the linchpin on the king's chariot.
The gold sparkled in the moonlight; the
charioteer's merciless heart beat with greed; he accepted the offer of Pelops.
When the sun was high the next day, Pelops and Oenomaus stepped into their
chariots behind horses champing at the bit. The starting signal was given. Both
men lashed their four horses. With the king's court shouting and cheering, the
two men dashed down the stretch of the hippodrome at Olympia. Neck and neck the
horses ran. On the first turn King Oenomaus whipped his four white horses to
make the first move for the lead. As his chariot thundered around the corner,
the linchpin came loose. Oenomaus, catapulted headfirst out of his chariot, was
trampled by the hooves of Pelops' horses and ground to shreds by the sharp
bronze wheels of Pelops' chariot.
Pelops was victor. He married Hippodameia, took over the realm, and ordered that
every four years games should be held in his honor at Olympia; that a temple
should be erected to honor his patron god Zeus; and that a bronze statue of
himself, Pelops, should stand in the center of the Altis. Wishing to appear
modest, unassuming, and not grasping for material things, Pelops asked that he
not be given gold for his victory; instead, he requested that a branch of wild
olive be placed on his head as a symbol of his victory.
Pelops' victory is shrouded in legend but many Greeks were certain that the
event marked the founding of the Olympic Games. Proponents of the legend pointed
to the fact that the southern half of Greece is called the Peloponnese, the
island of Pelops. Again fact mingles with fantasy.
It is historical fact that games were played at Olympia in 884 b.c, a year when
the kings of Elis, Pisa and Sparta were in the midst of one of their bickerings
To celebrate the meeting, they turned attention to games Athletes from the three
cities, who met in front of the altar of Zeus, swore they would compete with
fairness and honor. The games continued for several days. Winners were crowned
with olive wreaths. Statues were later erected to commemorate their victories.
So successful were the games of 884 b.c. that athletes and proud city officials
from all over the Greek world came to Olympia. The diplomats made deals;
merchants traded with each other; artisans sold goods; athletes came for the
competitions. Men came from as far away as Miletus, a Greek city in Asia Minor;
from the Greek island of Rhodes, a few sea miles from the coast of modern
There are no records of those early games; few facts to tell us who competed and
who won. But we do know that later Greeks considered the Olympic Games of 776
b.c. to be the historical founding of the Games. Official recognition was given
to the games of 776 b.c. by all the city-states, There were many events—but only
one was official. This was the foot race, won by a lean-limbed, sinewy youth by
the name of Coreobus. His was the name entered on the official records as the
first winner of the first official Olympic game.