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How the First Olympics Worked


The Herean Games
This statue depicts a young competitor in the Herean games.
This statue depicts a young competitor in the Herean games.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you were imagining a wrestler's loving wife watching her husband fight to the death, twisting a tear-stained handkerchief in her hands, you'd be wrong. Married women weren't permitted to watch the games, but historians aren't sure why. However, young virgins could join the throngs of spectators that crowded in the stadium. If a married woman was caught watching the games -- be it in the guise of an unmarried woman or even costumed like a man -- she'd be put to death. Violators were hurled off the pinnacle Mount Typaion, which stands about 490 feet (150 meters) high.

In the second century, a traveler named Pausanias wrote about the Herean Games. We don't have a lot of information about these games, but we do know that they were devised as a counterpart competition to the Olympics for women. The Herean Games were held every four years at the festival of Hera, Zeus' wife. Whether the games were founded at the same time as the Olympics or later, we can't be sure.

The Herean Games consisted only of running events. For some unknown reason, only unmarried women were allowed to compete. They wore modest tunics that exposed their right breasts and shoulders and ran with their hair undone. Did the winners receive prizes? Perhaps, but nothing as extravagant as the male athletes. An organization of 16 women that hosted the races may have given the winner an amphora, an urn-like vessel.

While the ancient Greeks made great strides toward including women in the grand tradition of the Olympic Games, there were still plenty of inequalities and scandals that marred the events. The games were fated to end, especially after increasing instances of bribery and cheating that disputed the honor of the games.

And in 393 A.D., the Christian emperor Theodosius banned the Olympics and the Herean Games for their promotion of polytheism (worship of many gods).

But this wasn't the end of the Olympics. In the late 19th century, an enterprising Frenchman revived the grand tradition of the games. Learn how the Olympics were reborn in the next section.