The ancient Heraean Games, dedicated to the goddess Hera (also spelled Heraia) were the first sanctioned (and recorded) women's athletic competition to be held in the stadium at Olympia, possibly in the Olympic year, prior to the men's events. It is dated as early as the 6th century BC. Some texts, including Pausanias's Description of Greece, c. 175 AD, state that Hippodameia gathered a group known as the "Sixteen Women" and made them administrators of the Heraea Games, out of gratitude for her marriage to Pelops. Other texts indicate that the "Sixteen Women" were peace-makers from Pisa and Elis and, because of their political competence, became administrators of the Heraea Games.
Like the men's competition, Heraea originally consisted of foot races only. The Heraea champions won olive crowns, cow or ox meat from the animal sacrificed to Hera and the right to dedicate statues inscribed with their names or painted portraits of themselves on the columns of Hera's temple. It is still apparent where the portraits were attached on the temple, though the artwork itself has disappeared. The women competed in three age groups, on a track in Olympic Stadium that was 5/6 the length of the men's track. Pausanias describes their appearance for the races such that, "their hair hangs down, a tunic (chiton) reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast.".
Though the men competed nude and women dressed, chitons were clothing worn by men doing heavy physical work. Thus, the women competitors were dressed like men. Whether this and the existence of the Heraea Games tell us something about social climate for women of that period is uncertain. We do know women were forbidden from competing in or even viewing the Ancient Olympics, under penalty of being thrown from the cliffs of Mount Typaion. Girls were not encouraged to be athletes. Those raised in Sparta were the exception, where they were trained in the same athletic events as boys, because Spartans believed that strong women would produce strong future warriors. These girl athletes were unmarried and competed nude or wearing short dresses. Boys were allowed to watch the athletes, in the hopes of creating marriages and offspring. A race dedicated to Dionysus (god of wine and pleasure) may have also been a community rite of passage.
Heraea could have been an indication of changing social conditions and an easing in restrictions on women, or it could have been a temporary change. Greek women were allowed to compete in the same festivals as men after the classical period. The dearth of references is evidence that these changes may have been unwelcomed Roman influence. In Rome, girls from wealthy families were allowed to participate in men's festivals. A Delphi 1st century AD inscription tells that two young women competed in races (not the Olympics), possibly in women's races at the Sebasta festival in Naples (during the imperial period) and in Domitian's races for women at the Capitoline Games in Rome, 86 AD.
- Author not listed. "THE HERAIA". "History of the Olympic Games". Retrieved February 18, 2006.
- Pausanias. "Pausanias 5.15.1-6". Olympia - Pausanias' Description of Greece. Retrieved February 18, 2006.
- Ελληνική Ολυμπιακή Επιτροπή.
- Scanlon, Thomas F. "Games for Girls". "Ancient Olympics Guide". Retrieved February 18, 2006.
- DesMarteau, Leslie. "The Heraea Games". The History and Mythology of the Heraea Games and the Sixteen Women. Archived from the original on December 17, 2005. Retrieved February 18, 2006.
- Ηραία - οι άγνωστοι γυναικείοι Ολυµπιακοί Αγώνες.
- Swaddling, Judith. "Women at the Heraia". Ancient Greek Olympics Gallery. Retrieved February 18, 2006.