An email from a Canadian reporter asking about doing an interview on cheating in the ancient Olympics led me to thinking about the aspects of the Olympics I haven’t delved into deeply. One of them is why women weren’t allowed in the Olympics.
Women attended the Olympics — at least some did. Married women did not, according to Pausanias, but unmarried women may have — at least one did: a priestess, since central to the Olympics is the fact that it was a religious event, which is the reason the Christian emperor Theodosius I banned it.
“Equestrian Competition in Ancient Greece: Difference, Dissent, Democracy,” by Mark Golden. Phoenix, Vol. 51, No. 3/4 (Autumn – Winter, 1997), pp. 327-344
Women also sponsored chariot teams probably from the 4th century and so could be Olympic victors, although these victories weren’t hand-to-hand.
Women were not allowed to participate actively in the Olympic events. Women were permitted to participate in their own athletic events: Heraea to Hera at Olympia, Arkteia to Artemis at Brauron in Attica, and at Sparta.
“Review: Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, by Mark Golden,” by Glenn Richard Bugh. Phoenix, Vol. 55, No. 3/4 (Autumn – Winter, 2001), pp. 445-447
To those of us who grew up before all the laws against discrimination, this isn’t surprising. However to those modern young women who ask why women were prohibited, a surprised “because they were women,” isn’t very helpful.
Someone suggested that women were prohibited because of nudity, another because it was a religious event. These answers are likely true, but they’re not any more explanatory than “because they were women.”
Athletes had to undergo ten months of training before the Olympics. There was another round of training at Elis. All elimination matches occurred in advance. The training of athletes took place in special men-only nude facilities (palaestra, gymnasia). This nudity suggests that women were forbidden because of problems with appearing naked before men, and probably has a lot to do with, it, but it doesn’t explain why others were excluded. For a long time, slaves weren’t permitted to train there, either.
It’s not terribly original, but the reason women were kept out of participation in the games seems to have been that women were seen as separate and distinct, almost a different race, at least as different as the slaves and barbarians who were excluded. To have lost actively at the hands of one of the people who were supposed to be less kalos k’agathos would have been distressing.
As to the interview…. He wouldn’t supply me with the questions in advance, so I passed him on.