There is a wonderfully expressive lyric by They Might Be Giants, about the 19th Century avant-garde artist James Ensor, that goes
Meet James Ensor/ Belgium’s famous painter/
Dig him up and shake his hand/ Appreciate the man.
And that, essentially, is what Michael Phelps has done to Leonidas of Rhodes. By winning his 12th career Olympic gold medal in an individual event this week—and with the able help of crack Olympic historians—Phelps has revived the late (very late) Leonidas and his remarkable athletic dominance.
Details are hit and myth. But there is no doubt that no one else, since Leonidas sewed up the last of his dozen Olympic victories in 152 B.C., had piled up so much Games’ hardware. (“Hardware” isn’t the right word, really; champions in the Ancient Olympics received olive-wreath crowns cut from a sacred tree in Olympia. Not medals.) For that record to have lasted 2,168 years is as much a tribute to Leonidas as it is to Phelps.
Overall, Phelps is easily the most decorated Olympian ever, with 21 total golds, but nine of those have come in relay events, which didn’t exist in Leonidas’ time. Swimming competition didn’t exist then, either; Leonidas was a versatile runner. Also, while Phelps, now 31, is competing in the Games for a fifth time (he did not medal as a 15-year-old in 2000), Leonidas needed just four Olympic cycles to win 12 times, the last when he was 36 years old.
According Tony Perrottet’s 2004 book, “The Naked Olympics/The True Story of the Ancient Games,” accounts of those contests were no more specific than describing a champion who “could catch hares on foot….and not just because sundials and water clocks were incapable of precision. The Greeks simply did not share our modern passion for comparing performances.”
“Instead,” Perrottet wrote, “the Greeks accrued ‘records’ by the sheer number of an individual’s victories—opting for quantity rather than quality. The greatest Olympic runner of all time by this yardstick was Leonidas of Rhodes, who won all three footraces in the Games of 164 B.C. and was given the honorary title Triastes, or ‘triple crowned.’”
In each of the next three Olympics, Leonidas repeated his trifecta in what some sources describe as the stadion and the diaulos, races of roughly 200 and 400 yards, and the hoplitodromos, a run of about a quarter mile while outfitted in bronze armor with a shield.
(Sportswriting colleague Charlie Pierce, who has gone on to bigger things with his political posts for Esquire, put up this photo of Leonidas…)
(With the comment, “Thank god for Speedo, is all I can say.”)
Perrottett unearthed the fact that, even had the Greeks been able to record race times in Leonidas’ day, they would have been meaningless because “there were not even standardized lengths for the stadiums….Every running track was ‘six hundred feet,’ but this was literally six hundred times the foot size of whoever first walked it.”
Dramatic enough were reports that Leonidas could run “with the speed of a god” and was worshipped as an immortal on his native island of Rhodes. Because of him, other athletes began keeping track of their victories on memorials.
Somehow, it seems appropriate that Phelps’ exceptional run of Olympic success began in the home country of Leonidas and the Games themselves. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps arrived like the new Poseidon, a 21st Century god of the seas stirring up a storm in the Olympic pool. He was only 19, but had won six events (and set six world records) in the previous year’s world championships.
His tales in Athens seemed akin to the ten labors of Hercules, Greece’s legend of the strongest man in the world who, by passing repeated tests thrown at him by the gods, became the only mortal accepted onto Mount Olympus as a god.
Phelps won six gold and three bronze medals that summer, methodically working his way through the competition like Hercules slaying the nine-headed Hydra, killing the vulture that feasted on Prometheus’ liver, snuffing out the most fearsome lion in the world, cleaning the Augean stables, and so on. It was historic stuff, taken up a notch by Phelps’ unprecedented eight golds in Beijing in 2008, four golds (and two silver) in London in 2012 and, so far, three golds in Rio.
Now Phelps’ medal tally is recalling the feats of Leonidas, who could be considered a more modern Colossus of Rhodes, his Olympic triumphs standing for more than 2,000 years like the 98-foot statue that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 226 B.C.
So Phelps has done with Leonidas what They Might Be Giants suggested was in order for the long-gone Belgian painter.
Raise a glass and sit and stare/ Understand the man.