To begin with, women were not allowed to participate in the ancient Olympic Games. There is no documented reason for the same but the following are some of the probable reasons –
The Olympic Games were conceived as games which were played by men and something manly. Women in those days were confined to indoors and household activities. Women did not venture into anything that was a man’s domain, like governance, administration, teaching, etc. Basically all outdoor activities were meant for men. Also, women were expected to be beautiful, buxom and voluptuous in the then world of men. Participating in such games would mean training, and training would give then a muscular look, which was not something that women were meant to be. Even if this seems chauvinistic, let us understand the fact that this was a different time and feminism or equality of the sexes was not an established concept.
Another aspect was that these games tested ones military and heroic skills, which again was not a domain of females. Further, it is said that many athletes would stay away from home to undergo special training for months ahead of the games (some say for about ten months prior to the Games), something a women could not afford due to her household, foremost of which was the child bearing and rearing responsibilities.
The other reason could be that the participants, i.e. men were to participate in the nude. The Greeks worshiped beauty and seeing a male in his raw athletic form was not considered to be voyeuristic, but an act of appreciation of the perfection of body-sculpting. Besides, nudity was not quite a taboo in those days. Women viewing men in such a form and that too in public would not be considered virtuous for women, and thus they were kept out of it.
There is an interesting story about why even the trainers were supposed to be in the nude during the games in the stadium. According to this story, a mother named Kallipateira (or Pherenike), from a well known family of athletes accompanied her son to the Games dressed as a trainer. However, when she was trying to get out of the trainers area, her private parts were exposed and it was revealed that she was a woman. From that day onwards, even the trainers had to be in the nude. However, what is surprising was that the woman was not punished and she was allowed to go. According to the custom, women were not supposed to be anywhere close to the stadium and if any woman was caught witnessing the games, then she would be killed by throwing her off the cliff of Mt. Typaion!
|Priestess of Demeter|
However, to all the above, there was an exception. Only one lady was allowed to witness the games and that was the Priestess of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Many scholars feel that this was to ensure that the rituals were carried out properly as the cult of Demeter is supposed to predate the Olympics and thus the significance of the Priestess.
Besides women, many slaves and foreigners were kept out of the games. This probably goes on to show that women were second class citizens and the games were only for free Greek males. However, I would like to re-iterate once again that the concepts of feminism were unknown to them, till at least the Romans took over, who initiated many changes in the format of the Games.
Finally, it is said that the women had their own games, which were held in the honour of Hera, Zeus’s consort, known as the ‘Heraia Games’ and took place in the non-Olympiad years.
To conclude, I don’t want to get into the fairness of the reasons of keeping women out of the Olympics, but one must not see everything ancient from the prism of modernity. The past had its own thought process and justifications and that should be respected for the times. What is important is that the anomaly (as we see it today) was corrected in due course of time, and women now participate in large numbers. To quote Times of India, dated 27/07/12, “4847 Women athletes, the highest number in any Olympics, are participating in the 2012 London Olympics. Nearly every participating country has women in its team”. This amounts to close to 48.5% of the total number of athletes participating this time – that’s a good score for equality!
So cheer up ladies, you are making up well for all the lost time!!
Next we will read about another aspect of the Olympic Games.