Along with the athletic contests held at ancient Olympia, there was a separate festival in honor of Hera (the wife of Zeus). This festival included foot races for unmarried girls. Although it is not known how old the festival was, it may have been almost as old as the festival for boys and men. Little is known about this festival other than what Pausanias, a second century AD Greek traveler, tells us. He mentions it in his description of the Temple of Hera in the Sanctuary of Zeus, and says that it was organized and supervised by a committee of 16 women from the cities of Elis. The festival took place every four years, when a new peplos was woven and presented to Hera inside her temple.
During the Hera festival, unmarried girls competed in three age groups in a foot race that was a single length of the race course (approximately five-sixths the length of the men's dromos, but held in the same stadion used for the men's and boys' contests). Girl victors in this foot race could dedicate images (probably paintings) in the altis to commemorate their victories, and they could take part in the sacrifice of the cows in honor of Hera.
Pausanias gives us a description of a girl's attire for the Hera games of the second century AD. The girls wore their hair free down their back and a tunic hanging almost as low as the knees covering only the left shoulder and breast. The costume that Pausanias describes may have been the traditional costume at Olympia and possibly elsewhere for centuries. Unmarried girls had a number of advantages at Olympia. They not only had their own athletic contests of the Hera festival in which to participate, but they were also allowed to watch the men's and boys' contests of the festival of Zeus. Married women, on the other hand, were not allowed to participate in the athletic contests of the Hera festival, and were barred on penalty of death from the Sanctuary of Zeus on the days of the athletic competition for boys and men. We don't know whether or not the women allowed the men to watch the girls' contests!
Events for women were first added to the Modern Olympic program in 1900 at the Paris Olympics. The first women's marathon was at the 1984 games in Los Angeles.
Run The Planet thanks the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (www.museum.upenn.edu) for the permission to reprint the article "Were the ancient Olympics just for men?" by Professor David Gilman Romano.