Heraean Games

Culturalmente Imparando

Fortunately, women's sport is nowadays a certainty and a fact acquired to the point that some of the most important sports figures in the world are women. If you think of sport in such a generic way, the thought inevitably goes to the Olympics, whose relationship with the daughters of Venus has been stormy since the origins of the competition. Even now, gender issues such as how Muslim women from certain countries can participate in certain Olympic sports are still being addressed, but the presence of women at the sporting event par excellence is a rather recent achievement, dating back only to the last century. In fact, the first athletes to officially participate in the Olympic Games were just a couple of girls (including the legendary English tennis player Charlotte Cooper) at the 1900 edition in Paris, among several hundred males. Four years earlier, the protest of the Greek Stamati Revithi, who ran alone the day after the men's marathon (held in Athens) which was not admitted, went unnoticed.

This last part allows to take a step (a lot) back to the origins of the Olympics and discover how already at that time women were determined to show all their value in sports, despite the prohibitions and the paradoxical fact that Olympia was a goddess, as well as the wife of Zeus, Hera. The Heraean Games were dedicated to this, the first official competitions of which all women, including the public, have witnessed. In fact, married women were not even allowed to attend the Olympics (while it seems that unmarried women were allowed, perhaps to encourage new acquaintances, and priestesses). The punishment was terrible: the women would have been thrown from Mount Typaeum. This information and those about the Heraean Games came to us through the writings of the Greek historian Pausanias, who lived in the second century AD, who narrates the origins. The competition was wanted by King Pelope in honour of Zeus, for the victory achieved in a chariot race against the King Oenomaus.

The success of King Pelops allowed him to marry Princess Hippodamia (Oenomaus's daughter), who in turn honored Hera with a party and formed a group of sixteen women to participate in the race wanted by her husband. From these premises, according to Pausanias, the Heraean Games were born, a sort of women's Olympics, but they consisted of a single running race. This was divided into age groups and was shorter than the male version. In the games reserved for men they competed naked, while the women wore a dress called knee-length chiton that left the shoulder and right breast uncovered, along the lines of normal men's clothing. The winners obtained olive wreaths, part of the flesh of the animal that was sacrificed to Hera and the right to be "remembered" with a portrait or engraving, to be kept at the temple of Hera in Olympia.

Unfortunately, there are very few testimonies about the Heraean Games and the following centuries were no better for the condition of women in the world, especially in sport or other business "reserved" for men only. At that time an exception in sport were the Spartan women, enticed by the men themselves to compete and to show their skills in the belief that more stronger they were, more stronger children they would generate. Millennia after the Heraean Games, perhaps dating back to the 4th century B.C., it was only after the Second World War that humanity (not all of them yet, unfortunately) accepted - too slowly - women in all areas of society and also in sport. As mentioned, many girls in modern times have succeeded to the point of becoming legends. But it is enough to look back not too far, to 1985, to find the "Charter of Women's Rights in Sport" which highlights the unjustifiable inequalities in the field of sports, also made of cultural barriers.


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  • L'Autore

    Mario Rafaniello

    Mario Rafaniello Vice Responsabile della rubrica “Culturalmente Imparando”. Partecipa anche all’entusiasmante progetto “Japan 2020” e si interessa di arte, cultura e letteratura.

    Laureato in Giurisprudenza e laureando in Relazioni Internazionali. Attualmente collabora con diversi portali online.



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