Before Michael Phelps became the most decorated gold medalist in Olympic history after winning the 200 IM on Thursday night, there was Leonidas of Rhodes.
We’re talking waaaaaay before Phelps. More than 2,000 years, in fact. And compared with what Leonidas had to endure to win his 12 events, Phelps had it easy.
Leonidas competed in three track events in successive Olympics in 164 BC, 160 BC, 156 BC and 152 BC. He went undefeated over that stretch in races called the stadion (approximately 200 meters), the diaulos (400 meters) and the hoplitodromos, according to a BBC report.
Typically runners competed in the nude back then. But in the hoplitodromos, they were required to wear heavy battle gear that included perhaps a helmet, breastplate and shield.
Leonidas may have had to run in that cumbersome armor in temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees. Unfazed, he still dominated the competition, even in his final Olympics at age 36. At the time, there were only gold medals awarded, so Leonidas had the podium to himself.
“To run all these events one after the other was quite a feat,” Judith Swaddling, senior curator at the British Museum, told the BBC.
Leonidas didn’t even receive any true hardware for his accomplishments. In ancient times, winners were presented with a laurel or olive wreath.
Apparently there is little biographical information about Leonidas or any known images of him. His name, however, comes from the Greek word for lion. After his death, Leonidas was “worshipped as a local diety,” according to Swaddling.