Who Is Leonidas of Rhodes?

Michael Phelps beat a more than 2,000-year-old Olympic record set by the champion athlete of the ancient games.

A colossal achievement (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)

NEWS BRIEF Leonidas of Rhodes had a good run as the greatest athlete in the world, as far as most individual wins in Olympic competition go. His record lasted 2,168 years, until this Thursday.

Michael Phelps won his 22nd gold medal in the 200-meter medley at the Rio Olympics, which makes for 13 individual career golds, a feat that put him ahead of Leonidas’ record set in 152 B.C.

Back then champions didn’t receive medals.

They were given wreaths from wild olive trees, and Leonidas had more than anyone else. He won three events—called a Triast—at four consecutive Olympiads, which made for 12 individual wins, his last at age 36 (Phelps is 31).

Leonidas was a runner and he competed in the stadiun, a 200-meter sprint, the diaulos, which was 400 meters, and the hoplitodromos, the same as the diaulos, except it’s run while wearing a helmet, greaves, and while carrying a bronze-and-wood shield.

The BBC interviewed a historian, who said of Leonidas that:

“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.”

Leonidas’ accomplishments made him almost godlike, because ancient Greeks venerated athletes as people now do movie stars. Not much else is known about Leonidas, but it’s a tribute to his accomplishments that people are still talking about him today—and he did it all, as far as we know, sans cupping.