Michael Phelps Tied A 2,168-Year-Old Olympic Record

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Another two golds last night for Michael Phelps, the most decorated American Olympian ever: That makes 21 gold medals in his career, 25 medals overall, and with his win in the 200m butterfly—a particularly personal win, given his loss in that event four years ago—Phelps now has 12 individual wins to bring him into a tie with the late, great Leonidas of Rhodes.

Olympic historian Bill Mallon pulled out this beauty of a factoid, and there’s no reason to doubt it: the IOC is good at keeping stats and the Classical and Hellenistic-era Greeks weren’t bad either. Leonidas of Rhodes was a sprinter, apparently one of the best who ever lived, according to the mostly complete Olympic records first compiled by Hippias of Elas and updated and revised by later scholars.


At the 154th Olympiad, held in 164 BCE, Leonidas completed the “triple,” winning the stadion sprint (about 200 meters*), the diaulos (twice the length of the stadion), and the hoplitodromos, a diaulos with the runners wearing a helmet and greaves and carrying a shield, the armor weighing more than 50 pounds.

*The stadion was not a fixed length, but instead varied based on the length of the stadium was being used. At Olympia, that was 192.27 meters. The dialous was simply “there and back.”

Then Leonidas won the triple at the next three Olympic Games, in 160 BCE, 156 BCE, and 152 BCE. As Pausanias tells us, Leonidas, “the most famous runner...maintained his speed at its prime for four Olympiads, and won twelve victories for running.”

Leonidas must have been a true superstar in the eastern Mediterranean; the events in which he competed and won were among the most popular and most important an the ancient Olympics. The stadion traditionally opened each games, and the hoplitodromos closed them. Here, please enjoy(?) members of the 2010 Apollon Boedromia Symposium in Melbourne, Australia, reenacting the hoplitodromos. And yes, for maximum authenticity, they are nude.

The Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement confirms that Leonidas’s 12 wins (he was awarded wreaths, not medals), is an Olympic record, ancient or modern. Well, it was his Olympic record for a couple millennia-plus. Michael Phelps has tied him, and has two more chances to surpass him: the 200m individual medley on Thursday, and the 100m butterfly on Friday.


Still, I’d like to see Phelps do this while wearing armor.