Sparta’s Charioteer Champion
Today, women in sport are campaigning to ensure that they have equal pay and access to the same training and facilities as their male counterparts. Unfortunately, women across the world are fighting for their place in sport. For years professional sport has suffered from culturally and institutionally ingrained sexism which excludes women.
Between 1921 and 1971, women were banned from playing on grounds associated with England’s Football Association (the FA). Women’s football in the UK is gaining ground and the Women’s World Cup 2019 has boosted girls’ participation in the sport. But, the gender pay gap between women and men in the national teams is still huge and is being disputed by women’s teams around the world. In 2019, the Matildas, the Australian women’s national team, secured a landmark victory: they are now on the same pay scale as the men’s team.
Still, in other parts of the world, women are fighting to play football professionally, let alone compete at international levels continues. Against all odds, in 2019, Sudan launched its first women’s league and in October 2019 women in Iran were able to attend football matches for the first time in 40 years, a major achievement following the tragic death of ‘Blue Girl’ Sahar Khodayar, who died protesting her right to attend a football match.
The fact of the matter is that women have and will always overcome these barriers, and we find examples of such resilience and tenacity in the ancient world. One such woman was Cynisca of Sparta who became the first woman to win at the Olympic Games, despite it being a male-only event.
Cynisca was the sister of Agesilaus, a King of Sparta who ruled between c. 398 and c. 360 BCE. According to the geographer Pausanias, writing in the 1st century CE, Cynisca developed an interest in chariot racing, becoming the first woman to rear and train horses for the purpose.
Cynisca’s passion for chariot racing was supposedly encouraged by her brother Agesilaus so he could make a point. According to Xenophon, wealthy individuals were doing so well at chariot racing, a symbol of ‘manly prowess’ (Gribble, 2012), not because they had any skill in the sport, but because they had the resources to rear winning horses. To prove that such success was not down to talent, and to knock his chariot-racing contemporaries down a peg or two, Agesilaus gave the same task to his sister.
There are a few issues with Xenophon’s assessment, especially as it undermines Cynisca’s achievements. Xenophon was Athenian, and women in Athens lived very different lives from Spartan women. Spartan women were encouraged to be physically active and could participate in financial affairs, including owning land. Despite not being able to vote, women in Sparta enjoyed greater freedoms than women in any other Greek city state. Therefore, it was not unusual for women to be physically active and involved in sports, despite Xenophon’s suggestion (later echoed by Plutarch in the 1st CE) that Cynisca’s chariot racing was ultimately an extension of her brother’s personal and political agenda.
Nevertheless, whether Cynisca developed her own interest in chariot racing or Agesilaus encouraged her to prove a point, Cynisca excelled in putting together a chariot racing team. Cynisca employed charioteers which was standard practice for wealthy individuals wishing to compete in chariot racing, but also a necessity as women were not permitted to compete at or attend the Olympics.
Cynisca entered teams in the Olympic Games in 396 and 392 BCE, winning the four-horse chariot races on both occasions. In doing so, Cynisca become the first woman to win at the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, as the Olympic Games were a male-only event, Cynisca was not present for the victory and she was unable to attend the winners’ ceremonies.
However, Cynisca’s achievements were not forgotten and a statue of Cynisca was dedicated at Olympia. Cynisca also ensured that her name lived on at Olympia with an inscription which reads:
Kings of Sparta were my fathers and brothers, and I, Cynisca, winning the race with my chariot of swift-footed horses, erected this statue. I assert that I am the only woman in all Greece who won this crown.
In addition, Cynisca dedicated bronze horses in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia to celebrate her victory, where they were still in place when Pausanias visited the sanctuary in the 2nd century CE. In Sparta, Cynisca became the first woman to have a hero cult dedicated to her, with a shrine erected in her name near the Platanistas where athletic competitions for young Spartans were held.
Cynisca achieved a number of firsts for women: the first to rear and train horses, the first to win at the Olympics, and the first to have a hero cult dedicated to her. Her achievements inspired other women to compete in the Olympics, and later royal women entered teams into chariot races as a means of demonstrating their status, wealth and power.
Cynisca was an early forerunner of the women in sport we see today, those campaigning for equal participation, pay, and access to training and facilities. Like Cynisca, these women will continue to win on the sporting field and off it – so why fight it?
Anonymous, The Greek Anthology 13.16
Plutarch, Agesilaus 20
Xenophon of Athens, Agesilaus 9.6
Fantham, E. 1995. Women in the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gribble, D. 2012. Alcibiades at the Olympics: Performance, Politics and Civic Ideology. Classical Quarterly. Vol. 62/1, pp. 45-71.
Kyle, D.G. 2003. “The Only Woman in All Greece”: Kyniska, Agesilaus, Alcibiades and Olympia. Journal of Sport History. Vol. 30/2, pp. 183-203.
Mitchell, L.W. 2012. The Women of Ruling Families in Archaic and Classical Greece. The Classical Quarterly. Vol. 62/1, pp. 1-21.
Pomeroy, S. 2002. Spartan Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press.