National Geographic : 1944 Mar
Chariot Race at Olympia HOMER describes a chariot race in connection with the funeral games celebrated in honor of Patroclus, and it is certain that the sport existed in Greece in very early times. Enormous sums were spent on the training of teams and the maintenance of racing stables. Although women were not allowed to compete in the games, and were, moreover, ex cluded from watching them, we hear of chariot teams owned by women being driven in the races and winning prizes. The chariot race probably was introduced to Olympia in the early part of the seventh century B.c. (ca. 680) and in its earliest form was for two-horse teams. Later, but still quite early, the four-horse team was introduced. The sculptures on the east pediment of the great Temple of Zeus at Olympia represent the moment before the legend ary race between Pelops and Oenomaus, the prize being the hand of Oenomaus' daughter, Hippodameia. More than a dozen luckless suitors had been beaten in similar races and slain, their heads being hung up by the jealous father. Pelops, however, is said to have bribed his rival's char ioteer to remove the linchpin from the wheel, and won the race when Oenomaus' chariot upset. Pindar tells us that the games at Olympia were established by Heracles in honor of Pelops. Nothing remains of the Olympic hippodrome, which was, after all, a simple affair. Any flat, sandy stretch of land would do, and Pausanias tells us that at Olympia it lay between the stadium and the river. It was necessary merely to set up pillars at the turns, and occasionally there seem to have been wooden grandstands. The circuit of the course was about six stades, alittle less than three-quarters of a mile. The total distance varied for different types of race, but was usually about twelve circuits ofthe course, or between eight and ninemiles. We hear of as many asforty entries inarace. Acom plicated system of startinggates toinsure fair alignment was developed. One of the hazards ofthe course was an altar along the circuit called Taraxippos-terror ofhorses. Around this grew up a mass ofsuperstition andlegend. What frightened horses atthat point andcaused so many accidents is not known, buttheancients believed that itwas some unfriendly demon. The charioteers who drove were, for the most part, pro fessionals, like our own jockeys, but occasionally an owner drove. As in races of ourown time, the prize went tothe owner, or trainer. A Spartan, Damonon, records that he and his son won 68 victories ineight festivals. They could hardly have done all the driving. The charioteers always wore along, white, sleeveless dress, called chiton. Their chariots were light, two-wheeled affairs with open backs, modeledafter the earlier war chariots. In a race the starting signalwas given byatrumpet blast; the turn was always to theleft. In the picture the chariots areseen passing infront of three judges, or Hellanodikai, who areseated onthrones of honor, and beside them arebronze tripods such aswere given as prizes, or sometimes setupasdedications inthe precinct at Olympia. Two chariotshave come togrief rounding one of the columns set up at aturn.