Woman of the Month: Kyniska of Sparta - the first woman to win at the ancient Olympics

Written by Izzy Attwood

What do you mean I’ll be thrown off a mountain if I come to the Olympics?

If a woman was married, she was banned from attending the ancient Olympics by law. If a woman was caught in the Olympic stadium, the city decreed that she should be thrown into the river from Mount Typaion. A little harsh for someone who just wanted to watch some sport, however, there isn’t any record that this law was ever enacted. In fact, there are stories of women who ‘invaded’ the Olympics and lived to tell the tale!

A noblewoman, Kallipateira, wanted to watch her son fight in an Olympic boxing match. She disguised herself as a trainer and snuck in to witness her son win the match. Overcome with pride, she rushed out to congratulate her son during the awards ceremony - a little out of character for the usual trainer. Her identity was revealed, but she escaped the mountain toss due to her important status. However, her actions meant that from then on, all trainers had to enter the stadium naked to prove their sex.

If you were a woman and wanted to find a husband, however, (or even just a lover), you were in luck. Maidens and prostitutes were allowed to attend to facilitate all kinds of matchmaking. The Priestesses of Demeter (sister of Zeus, mother of Persephone, Goddess of agriculture) were also permitted and held places of honour, both due to their position as Priestesses and due to the fact, Demeter’s temple was located right in the middle of the stadium seating.

So we have to enter naked… now what? Enter Kyniska and her horses.

King Archidamus II of Sparta had a daughter. Upon his death, the laws of Sparta meant Kyniska would inherit part of his wealth and horses. Kyniska wanted to enter the ‘tethrippon’, the prestigious 4-horse chariot race at the ancient Olympics. She bred her horses to perfection and decided to enter the race, employing a man to race her chariot as she couldn't enter the stadium. The creators of the event, deciding not to remember a woman could inherit property in some city states, missed a loophole when making the rules. The loophole meant that the winners of the event were the owner and master of the horses that raced. The racers were usually slaves, so they weren't allowed to win and the horses were...horses. Most women didn’t have the means to breed and care for horses, so the issue of gender had never been an issue before. This loophole had issues for a number of other reasons - in 416 BC, the Athenian general Alcibiades had seven chariots in the race, and came in first, second, and fourth. But this wasn’t an issue for the ancient Greeks, so Kyniska took advantage.

Kyniska and her team raced her horses in the tethrippon in 396 BC. She won. Upon finding out she was the owner (and therefore the winner of the race) everyone was shocked, however, they couldn’t deny that she had won based on the rules they had put into place. This made Kyniska the first woman to win an Olympic event. At the next Olympics four years later, she raced her horses. They won again.

Kyniska was denied entry into the stadium for the winner's ceremony and to collect her prize of a crown of olive leaves. She was however permitted to place her statue in Zeus’s sanctuary, an honour bestowed upon winners of the tethrippon. Her inscription read;

“I declare myself the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown.”

— Kyniska's inscription on her statue in Zeus's sanctuary

There are reports of Kyniska being encouraged to enter the Olympics by her brother, who wanted to showcase the wealth and status of the family (something commonly done through horses and chariots) or to demean the sport as ‘unmanly’ if a woman could win. Whatever the reason, Kyniska’s ingenuity cemented her place in history and broke down barriers. She inspired other women to enter the “all male” Olympics and win using the same loophole she did, and became the forerunner for all the incredible female athletes who compete and win today.

Got a suggestion for who to make The Hive’s next Woman of the Month? Drop us a comment or an email!

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