Women and the Ancient Olympic Games

The original Olympic games took place in Greece, as we all know. No part of Greece was as well developed then as this photo of Santorini, but the scenery must have been at least as gorgeous then as it is today.

The games weren't too inclusive, as you had to speak Greek to enter. Another major way they excluded people was by forbidding women from competing. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the original games were part of a major male religious festival honoring, who else, Zeus. Yes, a man. Zeus ruled from Olympia, hence the origin of the name.

What was the penalty for a woman to appear even as a spectator? Read on.

The ancient games were played for more than a millennium, from the 8th century BC to the fifth century AD, when these pagan-based rites were abolished in favor of Christianity. I wonder if the current version of the Olympics (revived in 1896) will survive that long? (Photo: Ios)

The first contest was a foot race, the length of which is now our stadium (from the Greek word stade). Other contests were added over the years. Victors were celebrated in their home city-state. People died in the competitions as well, but even a corpse could be declared a winner. (There's your first gruesome fact.)

There were no silver medals, let alone bronze. You either won, or you didn't. Competition was fierce, as it is today.

Now back to the women. The contestants did compete nude, which may be one reason why women were banned. (Those modest Greeks!) But one contestant, Pisodorus, who was a boxer, was from an illustrious family of boxers. His trainer was his father, but he died before the competition. An unknown trainer stepped in to fill the role. Pisodorus won, and in the excitement, his trainer hiked up her robes to jump over the ring fence and lo and behold, was revealed to be a woman (his mother). That seems to be a bit unlikely to me, but that's the story.

Now who would take the risk of being discovered when the penalty for a woman to appear at the games was death! And a gruesome death at that - to be thrown from a cliff.

PS: Pisodorus's mother was spared because she was from a prominent family. Hmmm....

Who thinks the Greeks were missing out by excluding women from so much of their public life?

Notice the prevalence of cliffs in Greece. (Photo: Antiparos)

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