What is the connection between Michael Phelps and Leonidas of Rhodes? What do the years 2016 AD and 152 BC have in common? While you may easily recognise Michael Phelps as an ace swimmer, and the most decorated Olympian in history; you may not be able to say anything about Leonidas.
Who was he, and why has his name come up in conversations about the Rio 2016 Olympics? Why not hang around to find out.
Introducing Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps has won a total of 22 Olympic gold medals – nine of which have come from relay swimming events – as well as two silver and two bronze. But in terms of individual titles, he only just passed the greatest athlete of the ancient world, Leonidas of Rhodes; when on Thursday, August 12, he won the 200 metres individual medley Olympics event and brought the number of his individual gold medals to 13.
Michael Phelps’ individual gold medal haul has spanned four Olympiads, starting with Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008, London in 2012, and now Rio in 2016. With more swimming events still to go, he may well add more to this tally.
Read More: What Will It Take For an Athlete To Be Successful At the Olympics?
So, Who Was Leonidas Of Rhodes?
Leonidas was an athlete from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, and very little biographical information of him is known except that his name – derived from the Greek word for lion – suggests he was a man of distinction.
He may have been a wealthy aristocrat, probably from an athletic family even. He competed in four successive Olympiads in 164BC, 160BC, 156BC and 152BC and in each of these, he won three different foot races, bringing his total wins to 12.
In his time, 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. He was 36 when he did it on the fourth occasion – five years older than the 31 year old Phelps is today.
The three events at which he triumphed were the stadion – roughly equivalent to today’s 200m race; the diaulos – roughly equivalent to today’s 400m race; and the hoplitodromos (or race in armour). The Hoplitodromos resembled a Diaulos, only that the athletes had to race wearing heavy battle gear – possibly comprising a helmet, a breastplate, shin armour and a shield made from bronze and wood.
In his time, there were no gold, silver or bronze medals. The races were winner-takes-all, and all the winner was rewarded with was a simple olive wreath and reverence among his people. Legend has it that a statue of him was displayed in Rhodes, with the inscription “He had the speed of a god.”
Upon his death, he was worshipped as something of a local deity in Rhodes; and was also described in ancient Greek literature as the most famous runner.
See Also: Let the Games Begin! A History of the Olympics