Category Archives: olympic history

Bringing a colossus of Rhodes back to life

phelps

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.

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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…)

rhodes

(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.

Update, don’t change, the Olympic record

dope

Here’s what can’t be done about drug cheats in the Olympics. You can’t rewrite history.

So, okay: Use the big stage of the Rio Olympics to rail against clear evidence of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. But think twice about re-distributing medals won by obviously tainted Russians in recent Games. The non-Russian athletes theoretically in line to inherit ill-gotten hardware may have been juicing as well. (Maybe they’re clean. But maybe they weren’t tested. Or maybe they had their own ways of beating the tests, just without help from bureaucrats.)

It’s not as simple as that old Superman episode in which the Man of Steel righted a wrong by reversing the earth’s rotation, thereby turning the clock back prior to a dastardly deed to make all well again.

The only answer, however unsatisfactory, is a full accounting of events. Such as: Ben Johnson won the 1988 Seoul Olympics 100-meter dash in a world-record 9.79 seconds. And Ben Johnson was found to have used steroids. And a 2012 ESPN documentary on that race offered strong evidence that most—maybe all seven—of Johnson’s fellow 100-meter finalists were guilty of doping at some point in their careers.

(Only Ben Johnson's shadow, right, remains?)

(Only Ben Johnson’s shadow, right, remains?)

The last time a government put its thumb on the Olympic scales with a national doping program involved East Germany in the 1960s and ‘70s, though that widely suspected foul play wasn’t documented for two decades. That’s when the United States Olympic Committee, arguing that its athletes had been victimized, agitated to upgrade or award medals to as many as 50 American swimmers.

Specifically, a USOC test case involved the women’s medley relay team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when U.S. star Shirley Babashoff grumbled, after finishing second, that the victorious East German women had deep voices and looked like men. (“We are here to swim, not to sing,” an East German coach famously declared.)

When East German sports authorities did sing in 1997 court testimony, acknowledging their chemically assisted Olympic triumphs, then-USOC president Bill Hybl called it “a matter of fundamental fairness” that the Olympic record book be amended and Babashoff and dozens of her American teammates be presented gold medals.

That didn’t happen, and probably shouldn’t have amid the excruciatingly complex unknowns, shades of gray, legalisms and politics involved. Not to mention anti-doping efforts that continue to be imperfect—even when honest, apolitical drug administrators are involved.

Among those who believed there was no more delicate surgery than rewriting history was Dwight Stones, who held the world high jump record for three years in the mid-1970s but was 0-for-2 in going for Olympic gold, finishing third in 1972 and ’76. In ’72, Stones was beaten by Soviet Juri Tarmac and East German Stefan Junge, two athletes likely operating under government-mandated steroids programs similar to the recent Russian model.

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But Stones rejected the USOC effort to revise long-ago results. “It’s a witch hunt,” Stones told me then. “I look at what a great life I’ve had, growing up in the greatest country, where I could do anything I want, go anywhere I want. There is no way we can relate to what it was like not having freedom, growing up in the East German or Soviet system and how compelling the reward schedule was in sports at that time.”

So, leave well enough alone. Just make sure all positive tests and doping admissions—however belated—are added to the record of Olympic results.

Meanwhile, be careful about the International Olympic Committee order to ban all Russians from Rio who have served past suspensions for failed drug tests. Because there are a number of U.S. Olympians in that category being welcomed to Rio, most notably the 2004 Olympic 100-meter champion, Justin Gatlin.

Is it fair to the clean competitors that the IOC has chosen not to issue a blanket rejection of the entire Russian delegation—even though IOC president Thomas Bach has proclaimed “zero tolerance” for illegal substances and called the Russians guilty of a “shocking new dimension in doping” and an “unprecedented level or criminality”?

Then again, is there justice in holding every Russian athlete responsible for Vladimir Putin’s win-at-all-costs, juice-on-the-loose scheme? Might there be at least a few Russians who weren’t involved in, of weren’t aware of, the industrial-scale hanky panky?

The dilemma is that a broad assumption of every Russian’s guilt prior to Rio’s competition feels like profiling. Yet given the cynical, systematic swindle arranged by Russia’s front office, the IOC’s decision to leave the eligibility of Russian athletes to the various federations of the 28 Olympic sports resembles an abdication of its authority.

Former sports journalism colleague Phil Hersh, who covered 17 Olympics, nicely summed up the IOC’s non-action on his Globetrotting Web site by offering a multiple-choice of descriptive words: Shameful, fair, hypocritical, righteous…pass, punt and kick.

I pick “all of the above.” That is: a full accounting of events.