In an excellent article, Professor Paul Cartlege of Cambridge University explores the differences between the modern and ancient Olympics http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18611638
One of the major differences he highlights is the fact that the athletes competed in the nude. The word ‘gymnastics’ is derived from the Ancient Greek word for naked, which is gymnos.
There is disagreement about who introduced this practise to the Olympics. Some believe it was a man called Orsippus from Megara who ran, and won, in 720 BCE. According to Pausanias:
“Near Coroebus is buried Orsippus who won the footrace at Olympia by running naked when all his competitors wore girdles according to ancient custom… My own opinion is that at Olympia he intentionally let the girdle slip off him, realizing that a naked man can run more easily than one girt.”
Other academics think that it was introduced by a Spartan, or Lacedaemonians, called Acanthus, who also won two races around 720 BCE. Thucydides writes:
“The Lacedaemonians too were the first who in their athletic exercises stripped naked and rubbed themselves over with oil. But this was not the ancient custom; athletes formerly, even when they were contending at Olympia, wore girdles about their loins, a practice which lasted until quite lately, and still prevails among Barbarians, especially those of Asia, where the combatants in boxing and wrestling matches wear girdles.”
Besides competing in the races, the athletes were a source of fascination and entertainment. Pausanias writes the following about a successful athlete, Milo of Croton:
“He would tie a cord round his forehead as though it were a ribbon or a crown. Holding his breath and filling with blood the veins on his head, he would break the cord by the strength of these veins.”
Quite the charmer!
If this is all beginning to sound like a lads’ night out, you might be right! As Professor Cartlege points out, women were not allowed to watch the events. It was law that, if a woman should be caught watching the events, she should be cast down Mount Typaeum; a mountain with precipitous cliffs.
However, the women did have their own games called the Herea. They consisted of races between women of the same age group, starting with the youngest and ending with the oldest. Although not naked, the women did dress in a less constricting manner, as Pausanias describes:
“…their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast.”
The women were only allowed participate in this one contest of a short sprint, whereas the men could partake in many more, such as, wrestling and chariot racing.