Three runners. Side B of an Attic black-figured Panathenaic prize amphora (Marie-Lan Nguyen/CC BY 2.5) ) and detail of a statue of a Greek runner by Sir William Blake Richmond, in St Peter's Square, Hammersmith, London. (CC BY SA 3.0)

The Greatest Runner You Have Never Heard Of: The Other Famous Greek Leonidas

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Thanks to Zack Snyder’s 2007 fantasy historical film,  300, the Battle of Thermopylae has become one of the most famous battles in history, while the name Leonidas is now synonymous with the legendary Spartan king who led his 300 men against hundreds of thousands of Persians. What if we told you that the most celebrated Olympian of antiquity was also a Leonidas? And that way before Michael Phelps became the most decorated gold medalist in Olympic history, there was Leonidas of Rhodes?

The Greatest Runner of all Time

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Michael Phelps broke an Olympic record that had lasted an unbelievable 2,168 years. As the media reported a year ago, Phelps surpassed the 12 individual Olympic titles won by Leonidas of Rhodes, bringing up his individual titles to 13. But who was Leonidas?

Historical testimonies refer to him as the athlete who ran with a diabolic speed. Other sources describe him as the greatest runner to ever live. What we know for a fact, however, is that Leonidas of Rhodes was the most decorated ancient Olympian and the most famous runner of antiquity, whose unique achievement in track and field seems unbreakable even by today's standards.

Sprinters. A racing scene from a Panathenaic amphora. Sixth Century.

Sprinters. A racing scene from a Panathenaic amphora. Sixth Century. ( Public Domain )

More specifically, Leonidas of Rhodes won 12 titles in athletics in the 164, 160, 156, and 152 BC Olympic Games by the age of 36. In each of these four Games, he won three different foot races. The three events were the stadion, a sprint of about 200 meters (656.17 ft.), the diaulos, which was twice the distance of the stadion, and the longer hoplitodromos, a 400-meter (1312.34 ft.) dash carrying 22.68kg (50 lbs) of military gear - made up of a helmet, a breastplate, shin armor, and a shield made of wood and bronze.

Hoplitodromos. Side B from an Attic black-figure Panathenaic amphora, 323–322 BC

Hoplitodromos. Side B from an Attic black-figure Panathenaic amphora, 323–322 BC. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Leonidas became the first athlete in history to break through the distinction between sprinters and endurance athletes, as the race in armor had not previously been considered suitable for sprinters. “They were running in armor, the temperature would be 40 Celsius. The conditions were fantastically unpleasant, requiring completely different muscles and gymnastic skills,” Paul Cartledge, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge stated last year when Leonidas of Rhodes grabbed the headlines through Michael Phelps.

Furthermore, in ancient Greece, an athlete who won three events at a single Olympiad was known as a triastes, or tripler. Leonidas was the only one of the seven known triastes to have achieved the honor more than once. So, after taking into account all circumstances, Phelps may have broken the legendary Greek athlete’s record, but let’s keep in mind that the American Olympian had the luxury of taking part in five individual events in order to break the record, while Leonidas only had three. As for a track and field elite athlete of our times: Usain Bolt has only won six gold medals in individual events, exactly half of Leonidas’ victories.

Crowning of Victors of the Olympic Games. Depicted at Olympia - Hiero of Syracuse and victors.

Crowning of Victors of the Olympic Games. Depicted at Olympia - Hiero of Syracuse and victors. ( Public Domain )

Modern vs Ancient Athletes

Modern people tend to arrogantly believe that we’ve made gigantic scientific and technological progress throughout the last few centuries, but that’s not always the case. Several studies have shown that our ancestors from various times in the past were smarter, more practical, and tougher than we are. For example, many contemporary researchers and historians propose that an unarmed battle between modern soldiers and the Spartans would most likely result in a bloody bath for today's fighters.

Spartans from the movie 300

Spartans from the movie 300 (Σταύρος / CC BY 2.0 )

Similarly, when it comes to athletics and sporting competitions, we also often consider 21st century’s athletes to be faster, stronger, and have more endurance than those from antiquity, even though we selectively choose to forget all the things – such as performance-enhancing drugs, advanced equipment, medical advances, and specialized nutrition – that modern athletes have to aid them in becoming ‘the best’. However, even under these circumstances, it seems as though certain historical athletes would have demolished the most elite sportsmen we have today.

A great example would be Javelin. Even though not much is known about ancient javelin-throwing, several researchers have estimated that most elite throwers in ancient Greece averaged throws of about 92 meters (301.84 ft). Of course, some argue that javelins were probably lighter back then, however this is only a theory. It would also be very critical to point out that javelin throwers, like all athletes of the time, competed without special equipment, were barefoot, and were given only a few steps to throw, instead of the pretty long run-up that is available for modern javelin throwers.



Charles Bowles

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