No! a Spartan maid could not be chaste, e’en if she would, who leaves her home and bares her limbs and lets her robe float free, to share with youths their races and their sports,-customs I cannot away with. Is it any wonder then that ye fail to educate your women in virtue? (Andromache By Euripides, Translated by E. P. Coleridge)
In ancient Greece not only men took part in athletic competitions. If we consider women’s competitions, there can be no doubts in priority of Sparta. The famous painting Young Spartans exercising by Edgar Degas (see one of my previous posts) is a good illustration. Sarah B. Pomeroy writes in Spartan women that women competed at the Heraea games dedicated to the goddess Hera in Elis that likely became pan-Hellenic games, though on a smaller scale than the men’s events at Olympia.
The women’s race at the Heraea in Elis was the most prestigious, the equivalent for women of the Olympic competitions held for men.
The author mentions that if the Heraea were pan-Hellenic, only girls who lived fairly close by would have participated. The reason was Greek gender policy.
In view of the tendency at Athens, for example, to seclude and protect young girls and to keep their names out of the public eye, it is unlikely that Athenian maidens would have been brought to race at Elis. At Athens (and probably elsewhere in Greece), girls were devalued, and the expenses involved in traveling were considerable.
The Spartan girls dominated in Elis in the archaic period, and it is likely that the games were established along Spartan principles and that the majority of competitors and victors were Spartan. In fact, Spartan women scandalized other Greeks with how outspoken and free they were. Like their brothers, Spartan girls were expected or required to attend the public school. At school they were allowed and encouraged to engage in sports.
The author of Spartan women considers nudity as a costume for sports and writes that Spartan women regularly exercised completely nude. Mature women and pregnant women exercised. Even older women exercised nude. As male athletes had discovered, light clothing or none at all is best for racing.
Plato wrote in Republic:
Yes, and the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young
On the contrary, the Roman poet Sextus Propertius (The Elegies, Book III.14:1-34 The Spartan Girls) was impressed by the Spartan girls
I admire many of the rules of your training, Sparta, but most of all the great blessings derived from the girls’ gymnasia, where a girl can exercise her body, naked, without blame, among wrestling men, when the swift-thrown ball eludes the grasp, and the curved rod sounds against the ring, and the woman is left panting at the furthest goal, and suffers bruises in the hard wrestling.
Sparta was in many aspects unpleasant society (it is even compared with a communist state, but it is, of course, inappropriate to use modern terms to describe antiquity), but if some of Spartan attitude towards athletics survived to our times, the modern academic athletics might look different.