Category Archives: Olympic Games
Kyniska (or Cyniska), a Spartan princess, was the daughter of King Archidamus II and sister to King Agesilaus.
She owned a sizable estate where she bred, raised and trained horses, and in 396 BCE, when she was probably between 40 and 50 years old, she became the first woman to participate in the Olympic Games.
Spartan culture believed stronger children come from parents who were both strong, an unusual concept in Ancient Greek society. Spartan authorities encouraged women to train both mind and body.
Unlike Athens and the other Greek city-states where girls were hidden from the public and learned only domestic skills, Sparta held races and trials of strength for girls as well as boys.
Kyniska’s childhood would have been full of athletic training: running, jumping, throwing the discus and javelin, perhaps even wrestling.
Spartan girls married later, allowing more years in education. Aristocratic girls such as Kyniska learned poetry and also trained to dance and sing competitively, so she may have even been literate.
Kyniska had wealth and status – but it was her ambition that made her a legend.
This ambition drove her to compete in the four-horse chariot race, or tethrippon, at the Olympics in 396 and 392 BCE.
Her chariot team won both times.
No women allowed
This feat was especially impressive because women could not even step foot on the sacred grounds of the Olympic Sanctuary during the festival. Married women were forbidden on penalty of death from even attending as spectators.
To compete, Kyniska cleverly exploited loopholes.
In sports like wrestling or javelin, the victors individually competed on the field. In the chariot race, the winners were the horse owners, not the riders – who were almost always slaves. Much like with the modern Kentucky Derby or Melbourne Cup, the victors are the horse and its owner, not the rider.
Kyniska didn’t have to drive the chariot to win.
In fact, chariot team owners did not even have to be physically present at Olympia during the games. Kyniska could enter her chariot team in the race without ever stepping foot on the forbidden sacred grounds.
But Kyniska’s role was not secret. News of an Olympic victory was carried by fast messengers to the victor’s home city, where preparations to celebrate their return were begun at once. News that a woman had won an Olympic contest would have spread quickly.
What motivated a Spartan royal to break through the difficult glass ceiling of male-dominated Olympic competition and culture? The scant sources we have offer different opinions.
The answer may involve a bit of both.
Many ancient Greek women won Olympic victories after Kyniska, but none were as famous as she.
Kyniska erected at least two life-size bronze statues of herself at Olympia. The inscription on a remaining fragment of her marble statue base reads:
Kings of Sparta were my fathers and brothers. I, Kyniska, victorious at the chariot race with her swift-footed horses, erected this statue. I claim that I am the only woman in all Greece who won this crown.
Kyniska relished her fame. Agesilaus may have been the catalyst, but Kyniska herself probably decided to compete – at least the second time.
Other women would go on to compete in the chariot races, and by the 1st century CE women were competing directly against men in foot racing events – and winning.
The fact Kyniska didn’t physically compete has caused history to discount her achievements, but this argument marginalises her larger accomplishment. Amid enormous cultural barriers, Kyniska broke gender norms and glass ceilings.
By boldly and proudly celebrating her trailblazing victories with commemorative statues, she transmitted this message to women across the Greek world.
Fuelled by Spartan pride, Kyniska’s accomplishment to be the first woman to compete, and win, in the male-only Olympics is a startling and memorable achievement that deserves a prominent place in Olympic lore.
Every two years, when the Winter or Summer Olympics comes around, we hear about how the games staged at Olympia in Greece since 776 B.C. came to a sudden end in the late fourth century A.D. The finger is pointed at the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395), who is said to have banned the Olympics in the 390s as part of a wider political program directed against pagan religion, its rituals, and its festivals.
The idea that the athletic contests – held in honour of the Greek god Zeus for over a thousand years – were shut down by a puritanical Christian emperor makes for a good story. But is it actually true?
Theodosius I did issue a series of edicts against pagan sacrifice in the years A.D. 391-392. These have been preserved in a collection of laws known as the Theodosian Code, which was compiled in the fifth century A.D. by the emperor’s grandson. An excerpt from one of these edicts states:
No person at all … shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city. He shall not, by more secret wickedness, venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths for them.
Neither this passage, nor any of the other edicts in the Theodosian Code, actually mentions the abolition of the Olympic Games, as the historian Ingomar Weiler has pointed out. Sacrifices and libations to the gods had long been a part of the ancient Olympics, as with other Greek festivals. But the evidence suggests that sacrifices had largely ceased to take place at these events by the mid-fourth century as a result of changes in religious practices.
The games at Olympia remained popular throughout the Roman period, with athletes competing both for their personal fame and for glory for their home city. A recently discovered inscription listing victorious athletes demonstrates that the games were still going strong through to Theodosius I’s reign. The court poet Claudian then refers to the Olympics in A.D. 399, after the emperor’s death.
The most conclusive evidence of the games’ survival after Theodosius I issued his ban on sacrifice can be found in the work of an anonymous literary commentator. He states that the Olympics ceased to be held in the fifth century A.D., during the reign of Theodosius I’s grandson, Theodosius II (A.D. 408-450):
Since the Temple of Olympian Zeus had caught fire, both the Elean festival and the Olympic Games came to an end.
Olympic festivals (named after the original games at Olympia) continued to take place elsewhere in the Roman empire as well. The Olympics at Ephesus are attested until A.D. 420, and they continued at Antioch in Syria until the early sixth century A.D. Even though public entertainments were often criticised by Christian clerics, a prominent Christian senator, Leontios, intended to stage his own Olympics in Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century A.D. He would not have dared to do this if the imperial administration had banned such festivals.
What did cause the games at Olympia to end in the fifth century A.D.? Archaeological evidence shows that the site and the infrastructure for the contests (such as the buildings used to house athletes) fell into disuse. The statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world, was removed from the temple and taken to Constantinople. The workshop of Phidias, who built the statue, was converted into a church. This evidence suggests a gradual decline and re-appropriation of the space at Olympia.
The historian Sofie Remijsen has argued that the end of the games was not the result of an imperial edict against paganism, but a change in economic circumstances. Long-term developments in the administration of the empire during the fourth century A.D. meant that rich elites increasingly had to sponsor contests out of their own pockets, and the civic funds set up to support the games were used for other purposes. The contests at Olympia ended because no one could afford it. Such a fate may eventually befall the modern games, as spiralling costs make hosting the Olympics an unattractive proposition.
Let the games continue
The notion that Theodosius I banned the Olympics has quite a history. Back in the 11th century, the Byzantine author Georgius Cedrenus cited the now familiar story of the ban, but it came back into the popular imagination with the advent of the modern Olympic Games under the auspices of Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century.
De Coubertin, a French aristocrat, had an inherent belief in the “character-building” capacity of sport. Alongside English educator William Penny Brookes, he formed a committee with a mission to restore the Olympic Games to their former glory, minus tripods, incense, and sacrifices. Athens was the place and 1896 was the year. Following the games, de Coubertin reflected upon his achievement in Century Illustrated Magazine:
It was a thrilling moment. Fifteen hundred and two years before, the Emperor Theodosius had suppressed the Olympic games, thinking, no doubt, that in abolishing this hated survival of paganism he was furthering the cause of progress; and here [opening the games] was a Christian monarch, amid the applause of an assemblage composed almost exclusively of Christians, announcing the formal annulment of the imperial decree; while a few feet away stood the archbishop of Athens, and Père Didon, the celebrated Dominican preacher, who, in his Easter sermon in the Catholic cathedral the day before, had paid an eloquent tribute to pagan Greece.
De Coubertin highlights a problem: for centuries newspapers, periodicals, and literature had propagated the belief that pagan practices, including the Olympics, had rightly been stamped out by the rise and spread of Christianity. Yet the modern Olympic founder was taking pleasure not only in the fact that the games had been revived but also that a Dominican preacher (who was, incidentally, also the inventor of the Olympic motto) had paid tribute to pagan Greece.
The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in de Coubertin’s wider modern Olympic message, which itself was based on an idealised version of Classical Greece. However critically Greek and Roman paganism were viewed, the status of Classical Greece as the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had always confirmed its place at the centre of European education. For physical educationalists such as de Coubertin, nothing topped the pinnacle of the Olympic Games, Greece’s oldest and most popular sporting event.
The key was to adapt the games to “the needs and taste of the age”. This meant no more trappings of religious cult. Thus, when Père Didon praised “pagan Greece”, it was as the home of “beauty, grace, and strength all in one” (de Coubertin’s words); the perfect, philosophical place to educate the energetic youth of any era.
Ending with a whimper not a bang
Ultimately, the blame for ending the Olympic Games was laid at the feet of Theodosius I because it was difficult for people to believe that the festival – a defining cultural symbol of antiquity – simply fizzled out after more than a thousand years. The conflict between paganism and Christianity in the later Roman empire became an easy way of explaining the end of this great athletic contest.
By the time de Coubertin came to revive the Olympics in the 19th century, this story was set in stone. In restaging the games in a modern world, he drew inspiration from the athleticism of the Classical Greeks, but left the pagan rituals of the ancient world far behind.
Is cheating at the Olympic Games a symptom of modernity? Do recent scandals involving athletes signal the decline of the Olympic idea?
While in antiquity instances of bribery remained the exception – and were heavily punished – there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that attempts to manipulate the outcome of the competitions are as old as the Games themselves.
Take the example of Damonikos of Elis. One father of a young and promising athlete bribed the father of his son’s opponent to ensure his offspring a victory in wrestling. Both fathers were found out and fined.
Or consider the case of the Athenian Kallipos, who bribed his opponents to secure victory in the pentathlon. He, too, was caught out and a heavy fine was imposed on him and on those who had accepted the bribe.
Athens, however, refused to pay and even boycotted the Games. It took the intervention of the Delphic Oracle to resolve the situation: Delphi announced that no more oracles would be delivered to the Athenians until the they had paid up.
Such attempts to influence the outcome of the Games confirm that the competitive streak ran strongly through ancient Greek culture. In a world where few believed in an afterlife, this-worldly glory mattered immensely. And what better opportunity to show off than competing with others before an audience from all over the Greek world?
From 776BCE on, the Greeks gathered every four years to celebrate the Olympic Games and compete in a number of disciplines, including the foot race, boxing and various equestrian skills. The Games became part of an elaborate festival circuit, which also featured competitions in trumpet-playing and the recitation of poetry. Even beauty contests – for men! – are attested, albeit not at Olympia itself.
Scandal in the sanctuary
The ancient Games were celebrated not in a city called Olympia but at the sanctuary of Olympic Zeus on the western Peloponnese. They were organised by the city of Elis, which tended the site and provided the hellanodikai (judges) every four years to oversee the proper conduct of the Games.
The competitions were part of a lavish festival to honour the most powerful of the Greek gods and featured sacrifices, processions and dedications. Yet the religious setting did not necessarily ensure a more solemn and respectful attitude on the part of the participants. While most of the athletes stuck to the rules, some were prepared to do whatever it took to secure victory.
The Alexandrian boxer Apollonius arrived at the Games too late and was banned from competing. He claimed that bad weather had made it impossible for him to arrive on time. This was a straight lie: it turned out that Apollonius was late because he had secured himself a nice payout at some other Games.
What happened next was even more outrageous. In the words of the author Pausanias:
In these circumstances the Eleans shut out from the games Apollonius with any other boxer who came after the prescribed time, and let the crown go to Heracleides without a contest. Whereupon Apollonius put on his gloves for a fight, rushed at Heracleides and began to pummel him, though he had already put the wild olive on his head and had taken refuge with the umpires. For this light-headed folly he was to pay dearly.
As in the modern world, who was allowed to compete was crucial; in the ancient world, this meant (for most of the history of the Games) exclusively free Greek males. That was the theory, at least. In practice, there were times the citizens of a particular city were excluded from the Games for misconduct. This is why a Boeotian man once claimed to be from Sparta.
Women were not allowed even to visit the sanctuary during the Olympic Games, let alone compete. They had their own Games, the so-called Heraia. Once a young athlete’s mother managed to sneak in by masquerading as his male trainer. When her son secured the victory, she got overly excited and blew her cover.
Even the judges were not beyond reproach. In the equestrian disciplines, the owner of the winning horse took victory. A certain Troilos was able to win two contests over which he presided as judge. He apparently did not find this problematic: a bronze plaque boasts of his achievements to the rest of the Greek world.
The Eleans subsequently changed the rules, and judges’ horses were no longer allowed to compete.
Fines and prizes
At Olympia, competitors found to be cheating had to pay a hefty fine. The sanctuary featured a row of statues of Zeus – the so-called Zanes – that were financed by these fines and put on display for all to see. Visiting in the second century AD, Pausanias was still able to tell who had financed which statue and for what reason.
Even in the ancient world, it seems, cheating didn’t pay.
So what was at stake? The winner took all. Coming second or third did not rate and brought no public recognition. The winning athlete at Olympia received a crown of olive branches – at Delphi, fresh celery.
If this seems hardly worth the fuss, more lavish rewards waited at home in the form of cash, free meals and numerous public honours. Some winners also received life-size statues erected at Olympia or in their home town, or both.
The possibility of exploiting the Games for political ends and the opportunities for personal aggrandisement were not lost on the ancients: Emperor Nero moved the Games from AD 65 to AD 67 so that he could enter the competitions in chariot racing – which he did, with a ten-horse team.
During the race, the overly keen emperor fell from his chariot and was unable to finish. Nevertheless, Nero was awarded the crown. The officials simply argued that had the accident not happened, the Roman emperor would surely have won.
Nero’s Olympic “achievements” were later removed from the public records and the Games of AD 76 declared null and void. The intervention had been too obvious, particularly after it emerged that Nero had paid the judges a hefty bribe and also awarded them Roman citizenship.
Cheating, bribery and scandal, it seems, were part of the Games right from the start – as were attempts to prevent them. They are not a sign of the decline of the Olympic idea in the modern era, but part of human nature.
For better or worse, it seems, the absolute will to succeed can be absolute indeed and in antiquity just as today ambition cuts both ways, bringing out the best and the worst in people.
The Olympic Games are coming to a close once again. The link below is to an article that has a brief history of Olympic defectors, which generally occurred during the Cold War era.
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The link below is to an article reporting on some of the more strange things that have happened at the Olympics over the years.
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The link below is to an article that takes a look at the ancient Olympic Games – very interesting read.
The link below is to an article that looks at 11 medalists in Olympic Games Art Competitions, in a further look at Olympic Games History.
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