We finally tracked down Leonidas of Rhodes in order to get his perspective on the breaking of his 2,168 year old Olympic record by Michael Phelps. The elusive Leonidas explained that it’s the middle of the August holiday in Greece and he has been vacationing near Lindos.
“Terrible how these temples have fallen to disrepair, isn’t it,” he asked immediately, slamming the current leaders of Greece for being “godless” and blaming them for the condition of the Acropolis in Lindos, his favorite vacation spot.
“We all know what happened to Socrates,” he quipped.
But we weren’t here to talk politics with old man Leonidas so we cut straight to the chase, asking how he felt about Phelps’ record-breaking swim at the Rio Olympics.
Michael Phelps broke Leonidas’ Olympic record that’s been active for more than 2,000 years by surpassing the 12 individual titles won by Leonidas of Rhodes. Phelps actually has won more medals— 26 to be exact, but 12 of them were in relay or team competitions which didn’t exist in the Ancient Olympics.
“He’s not even Greek,” Leonidas shot back. “I don’t remember when they changed the rules but he should have been disqualified from the start. He’s no Greek… Phelps. Ha. What kind of a Greek name is that?”
Leonidas competed in four successive Olympiads in 164BC, 160BC, 156BC and 152BC and in each of these he won three different running races, the stadion, a sprint of about 200 meters; the diaulos, which was 400 meters; and the longer hoplitodromos, or race in heavy armor.
Athletes who won three events at a single Olympics were known as triastes, the ancient version of a hockey hat trick, or a “triple winner” in regular English. We know of only seven triastes in antiquity and Leonidas of Rhodes is the only known athlete to have accomplished this feat more than once. Leonidas was 36 years old when he became a triastes for the fourth time in the 152 BC Olympics.
We reminded Leonidas that times had changed and Greece was no longer the epicenter of the world and thus, the Olympics, too, had evolved. We tried shifting focus, asking again about the athletic competition.
“Swimming, ha! That’s no sport. It’s all Poseidon pushing his favorite racer and it’s all corrupt. That damn Poseidon… he pushes along the swimmer that sacrifices the most horses in his honor. It’s all a scam.”
Besides, Leonidas told us… “Phleps was wearing that skimpy bathing suit. I won the hoplitodromos in full armor. Try running in full armor. Can Phelps swim in full armor? Of course not… He’d sink to the bottom of the pool.”
He was on a roll.
“And what about all these team sports and relays. We ran alone. We never had these stupid team sports. Every man was responsible for his own fate. And besides, we never needed silly ventouzes to run faster. We relied on our training and our athletic strength. Michael Phelps can βάλλ’ εἰς κόρακας,” Leonidas said, referring to an old curse literally translated as “go to the crows.”
You’re famous again, we told Leonidas, after over 2,000 years— everyone is talking about you again. The New York Times, the BBC— your name has become a household word throughout the world.
“Yea, but I never got a Wheaties box. I want my Wheaties box.”
We showed him a potential mock up of what a Wheaties box could look like.
“You used that silly image of me? I’m naked there– those were easy races. You should use an image of me in armor. That was the difficult race. No way Phelps could have ever done that. And besides, why is that vase in the British Museum? They’re not Greek either, they’re Βάρβαροι (barbarians in Leonidas’ Ancient Greek language meant anyone who wasn’t Greek). They should return it to Rhodes where my people can admire me.”
“There’s a great one of the hoplitodromos you should find… I think the Gauls have that one. Make that the Wheaties box. It’s much more flattering versus half-naked Phelps.”