The Olympic Games are the most spectacular and historic sporting event in the world. The Games routinely bring together over one hundred countries across 35 different sports and 400 events.
The modern Olympic Games have evolved from the ancient Games that were held beginning in the 8th century BC. The Games were held in Ancient Greece where they originated in Olympia. They derive their name from this site. This early iteration of the competition was reserved exclusively for males as a display of their strength, skill, and endurance.
But the texts of ancient Greek geographer Pausanias describe an Olympic Games held in the second century AD exclusively for women: the Heraean Games.
The History of the Heraean Games
Very few historical records of the Heraean Games exist, but they were believed to have taken place just after the traditional Olympic Games at around 776 BC. Both versions of the games were held in the stadium at Olympia.
The Heraean Games, named in honor of the Greek goddess Hera, took place every four years. The games, which were associated with adolescents, were considered a rite of passage into adulthood for females.
The competition initially only included running sports. The Heraen Games didn’t include combat sports, which of course were a big part of the men’s games. The Heraean Games included:
- Stadion: a sprint competition on the stadium’s race track (177 meters)
- Diaulos: two consecutive sprint races along the stadium’s track (354 meters)
- Hippios: four consecutive races across the length of the stadium (708 meters)
- Dolichos: an endurance race 18-24 laps around the stadium (about 3 miles)
The winners of each race were crowned with a wreath of olive leaves, and animals were sacrificed in the name of Hera. The Greeks believed that the winners would be endowed with strength by eating the meat of the animal sacrifices.
Winners were also given the ability to dedicate portraits and statues to Hera, and they would memorialize their feats of athleticism by inscribing their names on the columns of Hera’s temple.
The women at the Heraean Games competed wearing a chiton, a kind of robe worn by the ancient Greeks, while the men went through their competitions completely naked.
Both of the male and female games were discontinued in 393 AD when the Roman emperor Theodosius banned the Panhellenic games and other religious festivals that were celebrated in ancient Greece.
The legend of Cynisca and the athleticism of Spartan women
Spartan women weren’t forced to wear long dresses, a custom common across most of Greece. This quality of Spartan female fashion was thought to be emblematic of the freedom, strength, and agility Spartan women were known for.
Spartan society held firm to the belief that athletic women give birth to strong children. Thus, Spartan women were allowed to ride horses and travel as they pleased, as well as hunt and wear short robes.
One might speculate that the majority of the Heraean Games’ participants were Spartan women.
In fact, Cynisca, the daughter of Archidamus II, the King of Sparta, was the first woman in history to win at the men’s Olympic games.
Cynisca won the four-horse chariot races in 396 and 392 BC, as she was the owner of the chariot that won the race at those Olympic Games. She was honored by having a bronze statue of her, her chariot, and her horses displayed in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
The inscription on the statue reads:
Kings of Sparta who are my father and brothers
Kyniska, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses,
have erected this statue. I declare myself the only woman
in all Hellas to have won this crown.
Apelleas son of Kallikles made it.
Ancient Greek translation:
Σπάρτας μὲν βασιλῆες ἐμοὶ: πατέρες καὶ ἀδελφοί, ἅρματι δ’ὠκυπόδων ἵππων: νικῶσα Κυνίσκα εἰκόνα τάνδ’ ἔστασεν μόναν: δ’ἐμέ φαμι γυναικῶν Ἑλλάδος ἐκ πάσας τόν [-]: δε λαβεν στέφανον. Ἀπελλέας Καλλικλέος ἐπόησε.