The society of ancient Greece (800 to 146 BC) cultivated a demeaning role for women. Women were seen as objects with little control over their lives. A woman was confined to the boundaries of her husband or father’s home and in service of domestic duties. Women were restricted from socializing and participating in outside events particularly when men were involved. The act of marrying had nothing to do with love, it was a practical business arrangement between a woman’s father and his choice of bridegroom.
By contrast, life was very different for the women of Sparta, Greece. Spartan girls were educated and physically fit. Their training focused on gymnastics, singing and dance and many girls also became accomplished equestrians. Sparta’s leaders thought the sedate lives of other Greek women were best left to slave women. They desired fit, strong Spartan women so they would give birth to healthier babies that would in turn become good soldiers for the state.
In 440 BC a young girl was born in Sparta. Cynisca, Princess Cynisca, daughter of the ruling King. She was an active athletic child given the same opportunities for learning and playing as her brother. She became an expert equestrian and acquired skills that helped her become a successful horse trainer.
As the 396 BC Olympic games were drawing near, Cynisca’s brother, Agesilaus, encouraged her to compete in the chariot races. His motives were however, dubious. In fact, Agesilaus’s plan was to use his sister to discredit chariot racing, a sport he disdained. He considered the other Olympic events more important as they required a man’s bravery, strength and virtue to win. He viewed a chariot race victory as a simple mark of the winning owner’s wealth. By having a woman win the chariot race, he hoped to show the sport to be unmanly.
The ancient Olympics were dominated by men. Women were actually forbidden from setting foot inside the stadium, the Hippodrome, even as observers. Women were allowed to enter the equestrian events but not as competitors. They were allowed to own and train horses. Cynisca employed men and entered her team in the four-horse chariot race – the tethrippon. She won in 396 and again in 392 BC. Cynisca became the first woman to win an Olympic event, an event she probably didn’t even get to watch. Agesilaus’s plan to sully chariot racing was for naught. It was a crowd favorite and continued to be for centuries.
Cynisca herself was publically lauded after her Olympic victories (to the chagrin of her brother). A bronze statue of Cynisca with her chariot team was placed in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece. The inscription declared that she was the only female to win the wreath at the Olympic events.
A hero-shrine of Cynisca was also erected at the Plane-tree Grove in her home town of Sparta. Religious ceremonies were held at this location. Only Spartan kings were graced at the Plane-tree Grove, Cynisca was the first woman to receive this honor. The shrine’s inscription read;
Kings of Sparta are my father and brothers
Cynisca, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses,
have erected this statue. I declare myself the only woman
in all Hellas to have won this crown.
Apelleas son of Kallikles made it.
There are 200 equestrian Olympians competing in Rio. 74 are women. The majority of riders, also 74, are WARHorses – 40 years and older. The oldest woman rider is Julie Brougham, 62, of New Zealand. Julie will be riding in the Individual Equestrian Dressage competition. Opening ceremonies are Friday, August 5. Good luck to all the Olympic athletes!
UPDATE February 8, 2018. Julie and her horse, Vom Feinstin, finished 44th at the Rio Olympics – congrats, well done!