From Ancient Greece to the modern gym
In prehistoric times, physical activity formed part of survival and work for sustenance. In Ancient Greece, the first steps in female sports were taken. It was a hard start
Women fully joined physical activity and sports some time later than men and facing some troubles. While the first modern Olympic Games date back to 1896, as late as in the 1900 edition, in Paris, women managed to participate. On that occasion, English tennis player Charlotte Cooper was the first woman to win a gold medal.
Regardless of fashion or medical advice, exercise began with early humanity and it has a great impact on people's constitution and genes.
Sports were initially related to perfection and body beauty. Nevertheless, it has been an important tool for good health and fitness, regardless of the potential of each discipline to yield a lot of money and fame for athletes.
In the course of time
Humans have always felt the need to express themselves through dance, initially as ritual, and later in form of arts and discipline.
In prehistoric times, training was not as it is presently. People exercised unwittingly when walking in long journeys or in their daily routine for the purposes of survival. With evolution, individuals likened workout to a vehicle aimed at enhancing their ability to survive, feeding themselves and even excelling themselves. It dealt with having additional working skills, running faster, being more resistant. Pretty soon, it was a means to train, get ready and flee from danger.
At last, in Ancient Greece, sports were directly used as a tool to gain fame, prestige and social status. Competition brought with it the value of triumph and triumph entailed honor, with Olympic Games as a fundamental platform. These events, held every four years in Olympia, convened the cream of society. The concept of training, to get ready to face a challenge, was perfectly established, even more so as athletes engaged in something else. They were not exclusive sportspersons.
In Roman times, it became a suitable method to improve appearance and health. In order to get the ideal -muscular and fibrous- body, sports were almost the only choice. This was the case for gladiators or soldiers of huge armies. Little by little, the exercise-health relationship was indissoluble.
In this way, in the course of time, humans realized that exercise was good to prevent circulatory problems and carry out works with less effort, thus improving the quality of life.
It was not that fast for women. In 776 B.C., in Olympia, Greece, women were banned from sports. They might not participate or attend sports events. A married woman who witnessed the games might be sentenced to death, because athletes competed naked, showing their bodies as emblem of work and perfection. At the end of the day, a chance was given to women.
Pausanias, a doctor who traveled around Greek cities in the Second Century A.D., in Guide to Greece, Volume 2: Southern Greece, depicted:
"Every four years, sixteen women weave a robe for Hera, and the same women hold Hera's games. The games are a running march between virgin girls; they run with their hair let down and their tunics rather above their knees, and the right breast and shoulder bared (...) The servants who wait on the committee of sixteen who hold the games are also women (...) They also record that the winner was Chloris, the only surviving daughter of Amphion."
Likewise, as an illustration, we quote the Poems of Sextius Propertius:
O Sparta of outlandish laws, outlandish custom,
how I envy your virginal gymnasia,
where naked girls enjoy the fun,
retrieve stray balls, run
To the song of hoopstick and hoop.
Girls stand dust-drifted
at the race's end goal
and in Sparta a girl may join the pancration
giving and receiving her share,
glove tight on delighted fist,
she wheels in a circle
against the weight of the discus
and a maiden may be seen
running her father's dogs
in the long mountains of Taygetus
her hair gleaming with hoarfrost.
The Spartan girl
dances her horse in the ring
and buckles a sword to a white thigh
and hides her hair in hollow bronze,
stripped to the waist like a warlike Amazon
bathing in the Thermodon,
or like Helen taking arms
with bare torso
and shameless complexion
among her brother, the god Castor the horseman
and Pollux the boxer.
the Law of Lacedaemon forbids
lovers to go separate ways.
The only description available of these outstanding competitions, similar to prenuptial initiation ceremonies elsewhere in Greece, was made by Pausanias in his Description of Greece. There, very few, yet enticing aspects, are detailed. To the best of our knowledge, sports events were limited to three races. Female competitors ran on the same track used by men in the Olympic Stadium. The track, however, was cut to 160 meters, one sixth shorter than the track for men. Female athletes were reminiscent of the mythical Amazons: female warriors who were said to have lived in Asia Minor, near the Black Sea, with their right breast cut off or burn out so they would be able to use a bow more freely and throw spears.
Pausanias related that the festival was created in ancient times by charming Hippodamia to thank for her marriage to Pelops, a mythological hero.
Hippodamia celebrated the sports event with the participation of 16 matrons. Since then, married women of Elis hosted the games of Zeus' wife. Most honorable women were chosen to weave a ceremonial robe that would be placed on the statue of goddess Hera in her temple at Olympia. This group of women also hosted festivals in Elis honoring Dionysos, the god of adult women, and assembled the chorales of several local heroines.
Some constituent elements of Hera's festival, that presumably formally started in 580 B.C., as appears from an inscription set in stone by Elis' people, recalled men's sports festival. Winners were crowned with a bunch of sacred branches of olive trees and a banquet was held in their honor. Furthermore, they were permitted to lay images in memory of their triumphs on the sanctuary. Such images in the form of portraits, instead of statues, were placed in Hera's temple.
Due to informational gaps, the festival remains a mystery. We do not know at what time in the year female games were held or for how long. Some historians reckon that they were held concomitantly with male Olympic Games.
Nowadays, the lack of regular exercise, according to universally accepted standards, is unthinkable. The term "gymnasium" stems from Greek "gymmo," which means "nakedness." In Ancient Greece, all physical, educational and hygiene activities were carried out without clothes. Several cultures and civilizations would adopt these rooms for body and mental wellbeing. They have evolved until becoming sophisticated fitness clubs, spas and comprehensive centers that keep the early substance and inspiration.
In modern times, Germans were the pioneers and first writers of topics on physical training and sports. A number of philosophers and teachers are linked to the subject, namely: J. B. Basedow (1723-1790), J.C.F. Guts (1759-1839), F.L. Jahn (1778-1852) and A. Spiess (1810-1858), among others. In fact, the first gyms sprouted in the middle 1800's in Germany.
In the United States, the boom of gyms began in schools and Catholic institutions, such as the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA, Boston, 1851). Earlier, in 1820, Harvard University opened a site for workout with equipment and machines.
In the Twentieth Century, the concept of gymnasium evolved until the gym as it is known nowadays: facilities containing machines, devices and guided, increasingly innovative workouts for cardiovascular, strength and resistance training; body balance; harmony and flexibility.
The cover of renowned review Sports Illustrated of September 14, 1987 was devoted for the first time to the feat of a woman, the US athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Such was another landmark in the conquests of the female gender in the sports field. Other salient women, namely: Nadia Comaneci, Mildred Didrikson, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Theresa Zabell, Marlene Ahrens, Evelyn Ashford, María Caridad Colón, Zola Budd, Mary Decker-Slanney, Sara Simeoni, and Jeanette Campbell, among others, have left their mark in the history of modern sports.
Translated by Conchita Delgado