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

During the classic period in Greece (500–323 BCE), 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?

Possible Reasons

Besides the obvious—classical Greece was a chauvinistic culture who believed that women's place was definitely not on the sports field:

  • Women were second-class people, like slaves and foreigners. Only free-born male Greek 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.

Participation of Women

However, as early as the early 4th century BCE, there were women who participated in Olympic games, just not the public festivals. The first woman recorded to have won an event in the Olympics was Kyniska (or Cynisca) of Sparta, the daughter of Eurypontid king, Archidamus II, and the full sister of King Agesilaus (399–360 BCE). She won the four-horse chariot race in 396 and again in 392. Writers such as the Greek philosopher Xenophon (431 BC–354 BC), the biographer Plutarch (46–120 CE), and Pausanius the traveler (110–180 CE) track the evolving perception of women in Greek society. Xenophon said Kyniska was persuaded to do it by her brother; Plutarch commented that the male members used her to embarrass the Greeks—see! even women can win. But by the Roman period, Pausanias described her as independent, ambitious, admirable.

Kyniska (her name means "puppy" or "small hound" in Greek) wasn't the last Greek woman to participate in the games. Women of Lacedaemon won Olympic victories, and two prominent members of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt—Belistiche, courtesan of Ptolemy II who competed in the 268 and 264 games, and Berenice II (267–221 BCE), who ruled briefly as queen of Egypt—competed and won chariot races in Greece. By Pausania's era, non-Greeks could participate in the Olympic games, and women acted as competitors, patrons, and spectators,

Classic Period Greece

In essence, the issue seems to be the obvious one. The classic period 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: until the world turned.

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