Ancient Olympics – Why No Women Competed

Discus-thrower, tondo of a kylix by the Kleomelos Painter, Louvre Museum

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.


Image credit: Discus-thrower, tondo of a kylix by the Kleomelos Painter, Louvre Museum

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2 Comments

  1. NS,

    I was going to reply yesterday, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem with the question, “Why weren’t women allowed to participate in the Ancient Olympics?” The problem with the question is it is judgemental. We are expecting people who lived 2000 years ago to act like us.

    A better question might be why do we have special events in the Modern Olympics just for women? The answer, and the reason why we have DNA testing is that in general men are taller, stronger and have greater upper body strength then women.

    So, now let’s ask why women were not in the Ancient Olympics. The Ancient Olympics did not include floor exercises and diving. They had javelin throwing, chariot driving and sprinting in full armor. Events women were not trained for nor in general had the upper body strength for.

    Most clearly in Sparta a man’s job was to go to war. A woman’s was to give birth and raise children, neither of which is a small event. Spartan women who died in childbirth were given the same heroic honors as a soldier who died on the battlefield. And to quote Medea; “I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.” (Euripides, Medea 250)

    Liked by 1 person

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