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Early History of Olympic Women

Did you know men competed nude in the Ancient Olympics? 

Did you know there was The Games of Hera, the female version of the Olympics, at the same time, in the same stadiums in Olympia? 

Did you know women were not allowed to compete in the first Modern Olympic games of 1896 but were allowed to compete four years later? 

Ancient Olympics

The Ancient Olympics started in 776 B.C as a religious festival to honor Zeus. The games were to last 5 days and held every 4 years. Many cow sacrifices were made to Zeus and presented to the victors. The victors were also given wreaths cut from the olive trees in Olympia.

The games were open to all free Greek males including chariot owners, soldiers and farm hands. Those free Greek males competed in the games in the buff. If that doesn’t seem awkward – wrestlers fought covered in oil, and boxers were urged to avoid attacking the on-display male genitals.

Where my gals at?

Women were not allowed to attend or compete in the games. Now historians argue if unmarried women were allowed to watch the Olympic games. Paul Christesen, Professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth College says, “No one really knows the answer to that one.”

However, there were some gals present at the Ancient Olympics. The Priestess of Demeter always had a seat at the games. After all, they did build a later stadium over Demeter’s sanctuary. So in a way to appease the god (which was the whole idea of this religious festival) the Priestess was in attendance.

By Sophie de Renneville – Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain

Other gals made it in the games because loopholes are fun! It all started with Kyniska of Sparta. The Daughter of a Spartan King, Kyniska was herself a chariot owner and therefore allowed to compete in the 396 B. C. games. She would win four times in the two Ancient Olympic games she entered. Because of Kyniska’s sly thinking she opened the door for the victories of 12 more female-chariot owners.

But the Olympics were not the only game in town. Possibly starting soon after were the Heraean Games (sometimes called The Games of Hera) these were for gals only.

The Heraean Games were foot races for unmarried girls. We know about these games because of Pausanias, a 2nd Century A.D. geographer, wrote about his adventures at the games. He documented they were every four years (just as the Ancient Olympics) and took place on a second track inside the Olympic Stadium that was 5/6 as long as the men’s running track.

Historian guess the gals might have had two different sprint races and two longer races that probably didn’t exceed three miles.

Spartan Woman, Creative Commons

Pausanias described the gals attire as hair free down the back and a tunic hanging almost as low as the knees covering only the left shoulder and breast.

According to Health and Fitness History “These tunics were typical garb for men performing physical labor, and as such these women competing in Heraean Games were, in essence dressed like hard-working men.”

Between the Ancient Olympics and the Heraean Games. There was beginning to be a long lineage of women in sport until Roman Emperor Theodosius banned the Olympics and all religious festivals in 393 A.D..

Modern Olympics

After 1,500 year break, the Olympics made a come back. 1896 is the start of the Modern Olympics continuing to this day.

At the 1896 Olympics in Athens there were 43 events, 14 nations represented, 241 men in competition and 0 women in competition. The event lasted 10 days and winners were given a silver medal and runner-ups a bronze medal. (That was remedied in the history books as they went to a gold-silver-bronze award system.)

Where my modern gals at?

Four years later at the 1900 Paris Olympics there were 95 events, 24 nations represented, 975 men and 22 women!

Women were allowed to compete for the first time in select games of; croquet, golf, tennis, sailing (mixed teams), and equestrian (mixed teams). Mixed teams meaning men and women on the same team.

The games took place during the World’s Fair and lasted 5 months. Many of the athletes didn’t even realize it was for the Olympics. Margaret Ives Abbott, an art student from Chicago, won in golf making her the first American woman Olympic Champion but died not knowing her Olympic lineage.

paris 1900

When it comes to the first, Héléne de Pourtales is credited as the first to win as part of a team game. Héléne won with her mixed sailing team in the 1-2 ton event. Charlotte Cooper is credited with being the first female individual Olympic champion in singles tennis. She also won in mixed double later on in the tournament.

The 1904 St. Louis was also during the World’s Fair lasting months, however it did open archery open to gal competitors.

The longest Olympics in modern history would the 1908 in London. Granted it was finally a stand alone event with a stadium build specifically for the games but it lasted six months. Skating was newly open to gal competitors.

World War I and World War II would put the Olympic games on hold however over time more sports were open to women, more women participated in the games, and it got closer to the three-week event we see every four years.  Here are some key dates in women’s history at the Olympic Games. 

Today’s Olympics see women making up 45% of the participating athletes for the Summer Games and 40% of the Winter Games.

From running with one boob at the Heraean Games to Ibtihaj Muhammad becoming the first Muslim-American woman to medal in 2016, Olympic gals have come a long way. There isn’t an Olympic year that there isn’t still a first record for women.

Author dr leah leach


One reply on “Early History of Olympic Women”

I had not heard of The Heraean Games! This is great information and I’ll share it for sure.
Thank You so much Dr. Leah for all you are doing!


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