Women In The Olympics From Ancient Greece To This Day

Women In The Olympics From Ancient Greece To This Day

Sports have always seen a certain amount of segregation and bias based on gender. Greece has been the epicenter of sports since ancient times. It is the birthplace of the Olympics, which originated there nearly 3000 years ago. Even in the earliest days of sports, this gender divide was persistent. The society recognized different roles and traits for men and women. Women were considered to have compromised their dignity and reputation if they pursued fame or excellence. They were historically discouraged from participating in sports, and laws were in place to prevent them from doing so. Married women were not even allowed to watch the Olympic games, leave aside participating. Unmarried women, though, were allowed to attend the event.
 But there are historical accounts of a separate festival held in ancient Greece, honoring Hera, the wife of Zeus. This festival included sporting events exclusively for women. The exact origin of this festival is not known to historians, but it is presumed to be almost as old as the men's Olympics. The event was organized by a committee of 16 women and included sports like foot races. It was all arranged for unmarried girls because it was not culturally acceptable to besmirch a woman's dignity. So, despite the restrictions and bias against women in sports in ancient times, unmarried women had some glimmer of hope of making their mark in this field, albeit much lesser in scale when compared to men.

Kyniska of Sparta - The first woman in the Olympics

 As the rules against women's participation in the Olympics were so stringent, there were some very offbeat measures taken to ensure that only men could participate. One of these measures being that every athlete would have to compete in the games naked. Yes, you read it right. No fancy sportswear for the athletes back then, just to ensure women wouldn't find a way to fool anyone and participate in disguise.
 But despite these challenges, one woman managed to not only participate but also win at an Olympic event, twice! Kyniska was the daughter of King Archimados of Sparta. As daughters were allowed to inherit their fathers' riches in Sparta, Kyniska inherited a part of the wealth and some horses after the King's death. She bred these horses and entered them into the prestigious chariot racing event called tethrippon. Slaves usually raced the chariots; for this reason, the winners of this event were not the racers themselves but the horses and their masters. Also, since breeding horses were expensive and women in those days did not have the means to breed them, there were no set rules against women's participation in this horse racing event. It was assumed that women couldn't participate anyway since they didn't own horses. But these little loopholes worked in favor of Kyniska. Her horses won the four-horse chariot race at the 96th and 97th Olympics, invariably making her the winner.
 She was denied entry to the stadium to receive her prize, the olive wreath, but she was still allowed to place her statue in the sanctuary of Zeus, an honor that winners of the chariot race were entitled to, a part of her victory was also accredited to her city-state of Sparta. Sparta, unlike other parts of ancient Greece, encouraged its women to engage in sports as well as education.

When did women enter the Olympics?

 For a long time, even after Kyniska's win, women were not allowed to participate in the Olympics directly. They would only participate in the equestrian events, like Kyniska did, as they didn't have to be physically present in the arena. Women participated in the modern Olympic games for the first time in the 1900 Paris Olympics. Yet, women were not very well represented in the games during the time, with only a few events like women's lawn tennis and golf.
 Gradually, with time more and more women's events were added to the world's biggest sporting contest. Women's swimming was introduced in 1912 and athletics and gymnastics were added in the 1928 Olympics. There were still quite a few restrictions involved. For instance, America would not allow its women to participate in any event without long skirts, which meant they couldn't participate in swimming. Women's shooting events were added to the games in 1984. In 1996, Softball, an entirely female sport, was added to the Summer Olympics in 1996 and 2008 but removed for 2012, and 2016, but will be added again for the 2020 summer Olympics. As a side note, because of the COVID19 virus, the 2020 Olympics in Japan will be postponed until the summer of 2021.  
 Women participated in weightlifting for the first time in the 2000 Olympics, and freestyle women's wrestling was introduced in 2004. In 2012 women's boxing was introduced in the Olympic games, leaving no sport that women cannot participate in anymore. Although there are specific differences still - such as women participating only in freestyle wrestling and not Greco-roman - yet women are finding their place in the world of sports alongside men. There are two events where men and women can directly compete against one another - equestrian and sailing.

Where do women stand today in the world of sports?

Women have come a long way, from not being allowed to enter a stadium to participating in the Olympics and winning laurels for their countries. They have broken so many gender stereotypes and proven that they can compete as well. Along with the efforts and relentless hard work, women athletes are also receiving enormous support from governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and their countries' National Olympic Committees and sports authorities. Efforts are being made to enhance the presence of women in sports.
 According to statistics shared by the IOC, the participation of women in the Olympic games, in particular, shows a considerable increase over the last 30 years. From a mere 26.1 % in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the number had risen to 45.2% in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The Youth Olympic Games held in 2018 in Buenos Aires was the first gender-balanced event in the history of the Olympic games.
 So the future is undoubtedly bright, and women have proved time and again what they are capable of when given equal opportunity.

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