Why Weren't Women at the Olympic Games?

Here Are Some Possible Answers

Frieze of Demeter and Persephone Consecrating Triptolemus
Frieze of Demeter and Persephone Consecrating Triptolemus. Cliart.com

Women were allowed to participate in sporting events in Sparta. There were two other events for sportswomen from other parts of Greece, but women weren't allowed active participation in the Olympics. Why not?


Here are my thoughts:

  • Women were second-class people, like slaves and foreigners. Only free-born Greek (male) citizens were allowed (at least until the Romans began to exert their influence).
  • It is likely that women were considered a pollutant, like women on ships in more recent centuries.
  • Women had their own games (Hera games) starting in the 6th century where they competed dressed.
  • Olympic performers were naked and it would have been unacceptable to have respectable women performing naked in mixed company. It may have been unacceptable for respectable women to view naked male bodies of non-relatives.
  • There could have been a risk of touching sexually-charged body parts. Not a problem for prostitutes.
  • Athletes were required to train for 10 months -- a length of time most married or widowed women probably didn't have free.
  • The poleis (city-states) were honored by an Olympic victory. It is possible that a victory by a woman would not be considered an honor.
  • Being defeated by a woman would probably have been a disgrace.

    In essence, the issue seems to be the obvious one. Olympic games, whose origin was in funeral games and stressed military skills, were for men. In the Iliad, in the Olympic-like funeral games for Patroclus, you can read how important it was to be the best. Those who won were expected to be the best even before winning: Entering the contest if you weren't the best (kalos k'agathos 'beautiful and best') was unacceptable. Women, foreigners, and slaves were not considered to be tops in arete 'virtue' -- what made them best. The Olympics maintained an "us vs. them" status quo.