Running is probably the oldest sporting exercise in history, certainly also practiced by women since the most remote times.

The first real female sporting activity was born in the Egypt of the pharaohs. Acrobatic dances with somersaults and pirouettes, often of a religious nature, and difficult games of balance and skill with the ball performed while standing on the shoulders of the companions, which we find today in circus shows (a mixture of juggling, verticalism and contortionism), were the main pastimes of girls. It was therefore not a sport at a competitive level but rather a playful moment, as was one of the most loved dances by girls, who waved the braids to which some cloth balls were tied. Some tomb paintings by Beni Hassan (cover photo) depict young women performing dexterity exercises by throwing some small spheres into the air.

In most of the pòleis of ancient Greece, women lived relegated to the home and only took care of the housework, completely excluded from public life and from political, cultural and sporting activities. However, it should be noted that already in the most ancient times the Heràia , the Erei or Ereidi games, so called because they were dedicated to the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, were held every four years. They represent the first women’s athletics competition that took place in the Olympia stadium, probably in the same year as the Olympics, a sort of women’s Olympics since women were strictly forbidden to participate in the actual Olympic games inaugurated in 776 BC.

Pausanias says that Hippodamia, wife of King Pelops, formed a group known as “sixteen women”, one for each of the sixteen cities of Elis, chosen from among the oldest and most deserving for dignity and fame, with the task of putting an end to the disputes between the cities of Elis and Pisa. They had the task of organizing the games and weaving the peplos for Hera. The games, reserved for girls, consisted only of the foot race that took place on a track that was 5/6 of the length of the men’s track, that is 160.22 meters. There were three races based on the age of the participants, from girls to teenagers.
Unlike the men who competed naked, the women ran with a short tunic just above the knees that left the legs uncovered, with the right shoulder bare to the chest and with loose hair, as shown by a statue attributed to the sculptor Praxiteles, of the 1st sec. BC, preserved in the Vatican Museums, corresponding to the description of Pausanias. The champions won an olive crown and a portion of the meat of the animal sacrificed to Hera (usually a cow or an ox) and could have statues engraved with their names or have their effigies painted on the columns of Hera‘s temple.

The Greek people had a cult for the mythical Atalanta, the virgin huntress unbeatable in the race until she was won by Hippomenes, who had the right to marry her as a reward. For the rest, women’s sport was held in low esteem in classical Greece, with one glaring exception: Spartan women, the sportiest women in the ancient world (and also the freest ones, since they could go out and walk through the streets of city), personally participated in gymnastic activities and public competitions. In Sparta it was very important for women to play sports, do gymnastics, take care of their body, have a perfect body and enjoy excellent health, indispensable conditions for giving birth to healthy and robust children, who one day, having become stalwart warriors, would have done honor to the homeland.

Physical education was one of the most important disciplines, encouraged by the legislator Lycurgus himself, according to Plato. Since childhood, the Spartan woman practiced running, discus throwing and javelin, and even wrestling, and up to the age of sixteen she practiced with the same hard workouts to which men were subjected also to better endure pain one day of childbirth.

In Sparta there were female gymnasiums where the girls were subjected to rigorous athletic training and then try their hand at public competitions where they performed in their own specialties. Bìbasis was used as a warm-up competition consisting of jumping and touching the buttocks with the heels. The one who managed to make the most jumps won. Usually the athletes were not married and competed naked (up to thirteen years old) or in short dresses. Boys were allowed to watch them in hopes of falling in love with them, marrying them and having children.

Female running competitions with a religious character were held as part of the cult of Dionysus, instituted by eleven women called “Dionysians”. In addition, two women, called “leucippids”, with reference to the mythical daughters of Leucippus kidnapped by Castor and Pollux, wove a tunic every year for Apollo Karneios. Therefore, it is no wonder (and it could not be otherwise) that she is a genuine Spartan, Cinisca , born around 440 BC, daughter of King Archidamus II and sister of two rulers of Sparta, Agide II and Agesilao II, the first woman in history to win a competition at the Olympics. In 396 BC, 380 years after the first Olympics, she won the laurel wreath by competing with the quadriga, or the chariot race with four horses, one of the most important and prestigious competitions ever.

Women, like slaves and foreigners, have been excluded for centuries from participating in games, reserved for male athletes. Married women could not even attend, under penalty of death; on the other hand, it was granted to little girls and girls, but they had to be accompanied by their fathers. Along the road to Olympia stands Mount Tipeo, from whose summit the women were mercilessly thrown into the river that flows on its slopes if it was discovered that they had gone to see the games. Only one was caught in the act, Callipateira. She was left a widow, she had trained her son Pisidoro in boxing, she had accompanied him to Olimpia and, taken by her joy in seeing him winner, she climbed over the fence reserved for trainers to run to meet him and hug him. She was, however,

Later, women were allowed to participate only in chariot races for the simple reason that whoever financed the participating team and who trained the horses could also be a woman, it being understood that the charioteer driving the chariot had to be a professional. male sex hired specifically for the competition. Cinisca, as a princess, was wealthy enough and also an expert in horse riding to afford to finance her team. She thus enrolled as a horse organizer and trainer at the 396 Olympics and won the chariot race with four horses, the tethrippon .

She was not a girl at all when she participated: she was certainly already over forty, indeed when she won the second time she was probably approaching half a century and according to some sources she was not married. As reported by Plutarch, Cinisca’s brother, king of Sparta at the time, urged his sister to participate in the Olympics because she indirectly wanted to demonstrate that to win the games she just needed to have a great wealth to invest. In any case, after Sparta had been banned from the Olympics from 420 BC to 396 BC, Cinisca took part in the very first Olympics to which her city had been readmitted.

The name of the triumphant ran from mouth to mouth: in the temple of Olympia two statues were dedicated to her, made by the sculptor Apelleas, one depicting Cinisca herself and another representing the chariot, horses and charioteer. An inscription still preserved indicated that Cinisca was the only woman until then to have won the chariot race at the Olympics. In Sparta a temple was erected in her honor, well deserved since she won the same race also in the following Olympics. Often in Greece particularly famous athletes after their death were revered as heroes: Cinisca is, therefore, the first woman to be heroized.

His competitive position was a spur for other women who felt encouraged to run with chariots to emulate his ability. Thirty years after her, in 368 BC, again at the Olympics, another Spartan, the noble and wealthy Eurileonides, won the two-horse chariot race. Her fellow citizens erected a commemorative statue to her, one of the few bronze statues of classical Greece still intact at the time of Pausanias, the author of the story, who lived about five centuries later.

A few decades later, in the Hellenistic period, at the Olympics of 284 BC, the Macedonian queen Berenice I, wife of Ptolemy I, the first pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt, won the chariot race, this time with four horses. In 272 BC her daughter Arsinoe, sovereign of Egypt, even won all three equestrian competitions in the Olympic games with both two and four horse chariots. It’s a lucky time for women. Just eight years pass and in the Olympics of 264 BC Bilistiche, mistress of the king of Egypt Ptolemy II, triumphs in chariot races with two and four horses.

In the first century AD , in Greece subjected to Rome, we find the first athletes participating in exclusively sports competitions, which no longer have any religious connotations. Memorable are the victories of three sisters: Tryphosa, Hedea and Dionysia, daughters of Hermesianax, to whom statues are dedicated and honorary citizenship offered . In the Panhellenic Pythia and Isthmia competitions , the older sister Tryphosa wins in 39 AD and 41 AD, only to prevail again in the Pythia two years later. Hedea asserts itself in the Isthmiaof 43 AD, in the specialty of the armed race on the four-horse chariot and, subsequently, in other races. Dionysia competes in 44 and 45 AD, in Epidaurus, winning victories that consecrate her fame. In Rome, sports practices have been widespread since ancient times: among them, women’s running competitions have a particular importance. The emperor Domitian, in 86 AD, inserted one inside the Certamen Capitolinum established in honor of Jupiter in the stadium built specifically to host a great athletics competition, equestrian and musical competitions . An inscription certifies the participation of two girls in the stadium specialty(the most important race: a fast run on a 192.28 meter straight) at the Sebastà of Naples, grandiose isolympic games, in 154 AD Still in the second century. AD a woman wins the 400 meter double race in Sparta. Finally, in a later period, but of uncertain date, in Patras a young woman named Nikegora is honored by her brother for having won in the dròmos of the girls, probably the simple race.

One of the most important and very rare iconographic testimonies of female athletes in antiquity dates back to the fourth century AD: they are the nine beautiful girls in dazzling and extraordinarily modern form that we admire in the mosaic of the Palestrite room, one of the rooms of the Roman villa of Casale in the near Piazza Armerina in Sicily, famous all over the world for the garment they wear, considered the first bikini in history. Two girls play with the ball, one seems to be engaged in throwing the discus, a sport usually reserved for men, while another seems intent on lifting weights.

Although gladiatorial games are not to be counted among sporting practices , it should be remembered that in the Rome of the past there are gladiators, mostly slaves or commoners. A bas-relief found in Halicarnassus, dated between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. C., immortalizes in stone two fierce contenders with mythological names, Amazone and Achillea, who face each other bare-chested armed with shield and short sword, without helmet or tunic.

Many authors from Juvenal to Suetonius cite with disdain the presence of women fighting in the arena, a bloody, violent and brutal practice that in their eyes appears scandalous and abhorrent for the fair sex. The Tabula Larinas , a bronze tablet, contains the text of an edict issued under Tiberius, which forbids men and even women to participate in gladiator games if they have family ties with senators or knights.

With the advent of Christianity, gymnastic-sporting activity, considered a pagan practice, undergoes an inexorable decline until it disappears completely. Novatian, a theologian who lived in the third century, declares: “Christians must keep their sight and hearing away from these shows without content, dangerous and in bad taste”. Many centuries will pass before Baron Pierre de Coubertin, in 1896, gives way to the first modern Olympiad in Athens, which, in strict respect of tradition, the participation of women is prohibited, whose role, as the creator himself writes, it is solely to applaud and crown the winners. In response, a thirty-year-old Greek marathoner, Stamati Revithi, signs up for the race under the pseudonym of Melpomene: not being accepted, she runs alone on 11 April 1896. She is stopped before the finish line, but the gauntlet against those who discriminate against women in sport is launched. And in the following Olympic Games in Paris in 1900, women will be officially admitted, inaugurating with sporting activity one of the happiest seasons of their emancipation.

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