By David Potter
In a year when Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals, and Usain Bolt became the first man to win the 200 meters twice, it’s worth asking: What does ‘great’ mean in sports? We might gain perspective by considering how the Ancient Greeks determined greatness in athletes. Then and now, true greatness is as defined not by a single moment, but by the ability to build a record of extraordinary achievement.
Milo of Croton was the greatest ancient Greek Olympian. He was a wrestler who won six consecutive Olympic crowns beginning in 540 BC, and lost in the finals of his seventh consecutive competition. He won even more titles at the other important athletic festivals of his time — the Python games, also held every four years, the Nemea and Isthmian games that were held at two year intervals — becoming a five time winner of the grand slam (winning the title at all major festivals). That’s twenty-eight years at the top; he was in his early forties when he lost his first Olympic match. That match was a classic confrontation between an aging champion and a rising star, a man who had trained in Milo’s home town. Timesitheus, the man who beat Milo, wore him down while avoiding the body slams that were Milo’s specialty. The loss did nothing to diminish Milo’s near legendary status in the Greek world and may have even helped people understand how astonishing his achievement actually was. It proved that he was human. In same way seeing Michael Phelps’ loss in the 400 individual medley (IM) made his later performance — the four gold and two silver medals — all the more impressive. They remind us that Olympic victories don’t just depend on ability, they depend on desire.
In the post-Milo era of the Olympic desire, willingness to take on extraordinary feats of endurance or compete in radically different events came to define true greatness. The theoretical founder of the games was Hercules, who being the greatest hero (albeit mythological) came to set the theoretical standard for above average excellence by winning two of the three combat sports: boxing, wrestling, and pancration (a combination of boxing and wrestling). The first person who tried to do this was Theagenes of Thasos, a boxer whose townsmen would later celebrate him as a semi-divine figure (the shrine in his honor survives to this day). He failed because was exhausted after beating another great boxing champion, Euthymus, just before the pancration began. Euthymus was so impressive that people believed that he had actually defeated a divine spirit himself — the story was still told more than five hundred years after his death!
Two hundred years after Theagenes failed, Caprus of Elis finally won two events (wrestling and pancration) and was remembered as a man who won because he was willing to take on great challenges. There would be six more men who would do the same in the next 150 years before competition in the two events was banned. All seven victors were well remembered. So too was Polites, described as “a great wonder” by an ancient writer because he won all three Olympic foot races on one day. While two of these events were sprints, the third was a distance race, and it appears that he placed first in the qualifying heats for each final — meaning that he won six Olympic races on a single day! Our source for his achievements said he was the second greatest runner of all time; the greatest, in his view, was Leonidas of Rhodes who won the two sprint events in four straight Olympics.
Greatness in the ancient Olympics required longevity and the willingness to take on exceptional challenges. That is what Phelps and Bolt have done, and that’s why they’ll be remembered amongst the greatest of all times (ancient and modern).
David Potter is Francis W. Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Greek and Latin in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium, Ancient Rome: A New History and Emperors of Rome, and two forthcoming OUP titles, Constantine the Emperor and Theodora. Read his previous blog posts: “Funding and Favors at the Olympics,” “The Ties That Bind Ancient and Modern Sports,” “The Money Games,” and “Sports fanaticism: Present and past.”