The Olympic Games have a rich history: The inclusiveness of Tokyo will be a world away from their origins in Ancient Greece where men from only the city states of Greece competed nude after prayers and sacrifices
More than 11,000 athletes from all over the world are competing this year in the world’s largest sporting attraction, the Olympic Games. The modern games are the greatest athletic legacy of the ancient world. The Greek Olympics were the pre-eminent athletic event, attracting the best athletes and held in honour of Zeus at Olympia for more than 1000 years.
But the modern games bear little resemblance to the ancient Olympics, and not just in the equipment used or style of execution. One of the main differences revolves around eligibility for participation: only freeborn male citizens who spoke Greek could compete at Olympia. This excluded women, non-Greeks, and non-citizens, a large majority of the adult population of ancient Greece.
Athletics was a male-dominated activity in the ancient world, and this remains the case to a large extent today. Even so, over 5,000 female athletes will participate in more than 300 events in Tokyo’s Olympics. By contrast, the ancient Olympics were strictly for men, though maidens could compete in foot races at a separate festival at Olympia, in honour of Hera, the wife of Zeus.
Few women could even attend the men’s games. Married women, for example, were barred from attending the games, a breach punishable by death. We hear of a brave woman, Kallipateira, whose brother and father were both famous boxers, who disguised herself as a trainer to watch her son compete in boxing. The son won but when the jubilant mother leapt over the barrier her clothes fell off. She was not punished out of respect for her father, brother and son, all Olympic victors. But it was decreed that, from then on, trainers, like athletes, would appear naked when registering.
In patriarchal Greek society, there were separate ideals for men and women. While athletic training was an important part of free male citizens’ education, women (except in Sparta) were confined to domestic duties and closely supervised. The separate festivals for men and women at Olympia reflected this gender divide.
Strangely, even though women could not compete personally in the Olympics, they could still win from afar in equestrian sports. Since the Olympic prize in horse and chariot racing belonged to the owner, not the racer, women could enter their chariots or horses driven and ridden by hired charioteers and jockeys.
We hear of a double Olympic champion, Kyniska of Sparta, who won two chariot races that way. While she did not receive the customary olive wreath prize, she was allowed to place her statue in Zeus’s sanctuary and commissioned the following inscription: “I declare myself the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown.”
Original publication 21July, 2021
Posted on NatCorn 26th August 2021
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