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Ancient Greek Olympic Games Banned Women From Participating. So They Started Their Own

Ruins of the Temple of Hera at Olympia. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruins of the Temple of Hera at Olympia. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Women in Greece wanted to do more than just watch. They wanted to play -- so they started their own Olympics: The Heraean Games.

The future may be female, but the past certainly wasn’t. Even as the Tokyo Olympics 2020 already features a lot of women medalists so far, the Olympic games, when it first started, did not welcome women. The Olympic Games in ancient Greece wasn’t a level playing field for women — something in modern times has changed and is on the path of becoming equal. While women were not barred from participating in the festivities and exhilarating athletic events in cities throughout the Peloponnese states, including Delos and Athens, the actual games or sport, were limited only to men. A look back at Greek mythology and documentation show that the Games in Olympia in the land of Elis—the city where the Olympics originated, retained a traditional, sacred ban of women. Elis decreed that if a married woman (unmarried women could watch) was caught present at the Olympic Games she would be cast down from Mount Typaeum and into the river flowing below, according to Greek geographer and travel writer Pausanias, reports Atlas Obscura.

But Olympics back then too, was a spectator loved sport - and women too wanted to participate. Women in Greece wanted to do more than just watch. They wanted to play — so they started their own Olympics: The Heraean Games.

Archives from Penn Museum note that the Heraean Games included foot races for unmarried girls, “although it is not known how old the festival was, it may have been almost as old as the festival for boys and men." One of the few accounts of the games are from Pausanias, who writes that “it was organized and supervised by a committee of 16 women from the cities of Elis. The festival took place every four years, when a new peplos was woven and presented to Hera inside her temple."

Pausanias also had a description of a girl’s attire for the Hera games of the 2nd century AD. The girls wore their hair free down their back and a tunic hanging almost as low as the knees covering only the left shoulder and breast. The costume that Pausanias describes may have been the traditional costume at Olympia and possibly elsewhere for centuries.

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The women who won the Heraean races were crowned with headdresses of olives and awarded a portion of the cow that was sacrificed to Hera. Pausanias also wrote that there were statues dedicated to the victors with their names carved on them. However, no statues have ever been found at Olympia, sport studies professor Betty Spears wrote in the Journal of Sport History.

However, there have been sceptics to this theory too: Some debate whether the Heraean games were even real because the little evidence that exists is based on a few documented accounts. The reason could also be the same reason women weren’t originally included in the Olympics: Sports with women in them were considered insignificant.

Thankfully, we’re far past that era: Today, women are not only competing and rightfully cementing their space in the Olympics, but sometimes performing better than men. As of July 31, more women, Australia’s Emma McKeon, US’ Katie Ledecky, China’s Zhang Yufei and South Korea’s An San are leading the Olympics 2020 with most number of medals so far.

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first published:July 31, 2021, 15:47 IST