‘Kyniska, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses, has erected this statue. I declare myself the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown.’
The ancient Olympic Games were male-only and women were not even permitted to enter the main stadium. The only way women could get involved was to enter the equestrian (horse) events – step in Cynisca.
A Spartan princess, Cynisca was known as a tomboy growing up – she enjoyed athletics and competition, particularly horse riding and chariot racing. She exploited the loophole in the Olympic rules which stated she could not compete – by hiring a team of men to ride on her behalf. Cynisca bred and trained the horses herself and her team won the four-horse chariot racing event twice – once in 396 BCE and again in 392.
Cynisca must have been an extremely ambitious woman, and was certainly proud of her achievements as the first woman to triumph at the Olympic Games. She was honoured with a bronze statue in Olympias, with an inscription celebrating her victory. A shrine was built to her in Sparta’s Plane-tree Grove – making her the first woman given this honour as previously only Spartan Kings were memorialised in this way.
The great irony in Cynisca’s life was that despite her trailblazing efforts to prove herself as capable as any man, the rules did not permit her to witness either of her victories.
Description of Greece (3.15.1) – Pausanias