Michael Phelps has broken a 2,000-year-old Olympic record by surpassing the 12 individual titles won by Leonidas of Rhodes. Who was this athlete whose record has taken two millennia to beat, asks Jon Kelly?
Phelps has a total of 22 Olympic gold medals, but nine of these have come in relays – in terms of individual titles he has only just passed the greatest athlete of the ancient world.
Leonidas of Rhodes competed in four successive Olympiads in 164BC, 160BC, 156BC and 152BC and in each of these he won three different foot races.
An athlete who won three events at a single Olympics was known as a triastes, or tripler. There were only seven triastes and Leonidas is the only one known to have achieved the honour more than once. Remarkably, he was 36 when he did it on the fourth occasion – five years older than Phelps is today.
The three events at which he triumphed were the stadion, a sprint of roughly 200m; the diaulos, which was twice the distance of the stadion; and the longer hoplitodromos, or race in armour.
Unlike most races, which were run in the nude, the race in armour required competitors to wear heavy battle gear, possibly comprising a helmet, a breastplate, shin armour and a shield made from bronze and wood.
“To run all these events one after the other was quite a feat,” says Judith Swaddling, senior curator at The British Museum.
“He broke through the distinction between sprinters and endurance athletes,” says Paul Cartledge, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. The race in armour had not previously been considered suitable for sprinters (the Olympiads had already been going for a few centuries).
“They were running in armour, the temperature would be 40C. The conditions were fantastically unpleasant, requiring completely different muscles and gymnastic skills.”
There is very little biographical information about Leonidas, says Cartledge, and no images of him survive. But his name – derived from the Greek word for lion – suggests he was a man of distinction. “He’s probably an aristocrat, probably wealthy, probably from an athletic family,” Cartledge says.
Rhodes had a strong athletic tradition. Another great Olympian from the island was the boxer Diagoras, who launched a dynasty of athletes. “Coming from Rhodes you are a bit on the fringes,” Cartledge says. “You probably tried harder than if you were from one of the older cities.”
There were no gold, silver or bronze medals in Leonidas’s day – races were winner-takes-all with the runner who came first earning a simple olive wreath. After his death “he was worshipped as a local deity” in Rhodes, says Swaddling.
He was also venerated in ancient Greek literature. Pausanias described him as “the most famous runner”. In the 3rd Century, Philostratus the Athenian wrote in his Gymnastikos that Leonidas’s versatility disproved all received wisdom about athletic training and body types.
A statue of him in Rhodes displayed the legend: “He had the speed of a God.” Quite a reputation for Phelps to live up to.
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