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Ancient Greek Athletes Who Defined the Olympic Games

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Ancient Greek runners are portrayed on a black-figure Attic vase; ca. 333 BC, British Museum. Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/CC BY 2.5

Ancient Greek athletes left their mark on the original Olympic Games forever, with many of their accomplishments recorded by some of the greatest historians of the times.

Now that we are nearing yet another Olympics, it’s a great time to look back at the illustrious athletes who won the laurels in the very first years of the ancient Olympics, and to revisit the greatest of them all.

The first written records of the ancient Olympic Games date back to 776 BC, when a cook named Coroebus, of Elis, won the only event in the competition -– a 192-meter (630-foot) footrace called the stade (the origin of the modern word  “stadium”) — thereby becoming the very first Olympic champion of them all.

By the end of the 6th century BC, the Olympics had become the most famous of all Greek sporting festivals — and there were many such competitions in those times, including the Pythian Games, held at the  religious center of Delphi.

But the Olympics, and all the ancient Greek athletes, held a special place of distinction in the Greek pantheon.

The ancient Olympics were held every four years between August 6 and September 19 during a religious festival dedicated to Zeus. The Games were named for their location at Olympia, a sacred site located near the western coast of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece.

In 648 B.C., pankration, a combination of boxing and wrestling — which had virtually no rules — debuted as an Olympic event. Only free-born Greek males were allowed to participate in the ancient Olympic Games; not only were there were no women’s events, but married women were even prohibited from attending the competition.

The Decline — and Glorious Revival — of the Olympic Tradition

The Olympics continued for some time after the Roman Empire conquered Greece in the mid-2nd century BC, but their standards and quality fell away, to the point that the Roman Emperor Nero entered an Olympic chariot race in the year 67 AD and declared himself the winner although he had fallen out of his chariot while racing.

In the year 393, Emperor Theodosius I, who was a Christian, called for a ban on all pagan-oriented festivals, bringing an end to the ancient Olympics after nearly 12 centuries.

But 1,500 years later, the Olympics would be revived, eventually growing into the global spectacle that we enjoy today.

France’s Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who lived from 1863-1937, was mostly responsible for the restoration of the ancient games onto the stage of the modern world, staging them in Athens in 1896.

The Glories of the Ancient Greek Olympics Through the Years

Those Games featured the first Olympic marathon, which followed the 25-mile route originally traced run by Pheidippides, the Greek soldier who brought news of the victory over the Persians from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC.

Coroebus of Elis, the first Olympic champion of them all

Coroebus of Elis, commonly spelled Koroibos (Greek: Κόροιβος Ἠλεῖος), was a Greek cook, baker and athlete. From Elis, he won the stadion race in the very first recorded Olympic Games, held in 776 BC.

The prize received by Coroebus was an olive branch, although the honor of winning and becoming the very first Olympic champion, in an event that was held to honor the god Zeus, was far more prestigious than any prize could ever be.

He has the distinction of being the very first Ancient Greek Olympian of them all.

Theagenes of Thasos

One of the towering sports figures from the ancient world, Theagenes was a famous Greek pugilist who supposedly won 1,300 bouts over the course of a 22-year career. His most significant achievements came at the Olympics in 480 and 476 BC, when he became the first athlete to win the wreath in both boxing and pankration. He would go on to win another 21 championships at the Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian games, and even won a crown as a long distance runner during a competition in the city of Argos.

Theagenes, who remained undefeated as a boxer for over twenty years, somehow, in true Greek fashion, continued to be a formidable presence even after he died. According to legend, when a vandal later attempted to deface a statue that had been erected in his honor, the giant bronze fell on the man and crushed him to death.

Leonidas of Rhodes – the Greatest Ancient Greek athlete of them all

Unfortunately, little is known about Leonidas of Rhodes, a runner who won the laurel wreath in three categories at the Olympics in the years 164, 160, 156 and 152 AD. Leonidas is notable not only for his long career, winning his final championships at the age of 36, but also for his versatility as well.

He won fast-twitch sprint races such as the stadion and diaulos, but then went on to victory in the “hoplitodromos,” which as its name implies, includes long-distance feats associated with soldiers, including running in a helmet and armor while carrying a heavy shield.

Leonidas of Rhodes has gone down in history as winning a total of 12 different Olympic victories — an athletic feat that has incredibly never been equaled in either the ancient or modern competitions, even with all our technology and training methods today.

The American swimming star Michael Phelps earned a whopping 11 individual Olympic golds during his glittering career. But as the Olympic motto goes, Leonidas’ gargantuan accomplishments still stand as a goal for those who always want to go swifter, higher and faster.

Gaius Appuleius Diocles

Many of us today either complain about — or marvel at — the astronomical salaries earned by modern professional athletes. However,  it may be hard to believe, but even these gigantic windfalls pale compared to the winnings of Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a Roman chariot racer in the second century AD.

During his illustrious 24-year career, Gaius competed in over 4,200 chariot races, winning an amazing 1,462 of the grueling events, and finishing second a total of 861 times.

While other chariot racers could boast of even better winning records, Gaius won the events with the largest purses in a world that was mad for chariot racing, making him one of the most notable athletes of the Games — although as a Roman he technically was not one of the ancient Greek athletes.

His earnings from the spectacular sport enabled him to become one of the richest men in ancient Rome. His career winnings of 36 million Roman sesterces would have covered the earnings of the entire Roman army for over sixty days equivalent to over $15 billion in our currency today.

Diagoras of Rhodes

Diagoras of Rhodes was not only a champion boxer but also became the patriarch of one of the most famous sporting families of ancient Greece. He earned his first laurel wreath at the 464 BC Olympics, in an achievement that was even immortalized by the great lyric poet Pindar.

Diagoras also won boxing titles at the Pythian games which were held at Delphi, as well as the Nemean games and the Isthmian games, enabling him to be declared a “periodonikes” — an honor bestowed upon athletes who won the crown at all of ancient Greece’s four major sporting festivals.

The scion of the family of ancient Greek athletes is the center of a heartwarming story that can easily be imagined even today, as he watched his three sons win championships in either boxing or pankration. After his sons Damagetus and Acusilaus won their own events at the Olympics in 448 BC, they reportedly celebrated by carrying their father through the arena on their shoulders.

Chionis of Sparta

One of the most accomplished and versatile track and field athletes of all time, Chionis of Sparta swept two events during three separate Olympics held in the years 664, 660 and 656 BC. He won both the stadion and diaulos sprints, which that were among the oldest Olympic events. His three consecutive Olympic victories in these races were not equaled for almost 200 years, according to the records.

Chionis is remembered for having executed a 52-foot jump of some kind, which most today believe was a type of the triple jump, which involves three large hops. If it was indeed a type of triple jump, his accomplishment was not equaled in the modern era until 1936, by Naoto Tajima of Japan.

Arrichion of Phigalia

One of the most amazing and disturbing ancient Greek athletes was Arrichion of Phigalia, a great fighter whose career tragically came to an end during an Olympic contest. According to the ancient writer Philostratus, Arrichion had won the wreath in the free-wheeling event of pankration at the 572 and 568 BC Olympics.

He had again reached the final for a third time in a row in the 564 BC Games.

However, during the bout, Arrichion’s opponent placed him in a painful chokehold. As his breath was being squeezed out of him, the great athlete succeeded in dislocating his rival’s ankle, forcing the other man to abandon the match.

However, it was immediately obvious that Arrichion had succumbed from the lack of oxygen, or perhaps a broken neck, just seconds moments before the fight was called. The Olympic veteran was then posthumously declared the winner of the pankration for a third straight time, and was ever after hailed as a great hero in his hometown of Phigalia.

Milo of Croton

Milo of Croton, a wrestler who has gone down in history for more than his skills on the mat, is also legendary for his superhuman appetite. He won the Olympic wrestling title an incredible six times in a row between 536 and 520 BC, and grabbed the laurel at another 27 championships at the Nemean, Pythian and Isthmian Games as well.

Milo was just as adept at the table, however, reportedly being able to eat over 40 pounds of meat and bread and drink eight quarts of wine in one meal. He also went down in legend for leading the Crotoniates to a military victory over the Sybarites in the year 510 BC.

As if that weren’t enough, he once was said to have saved the philosopher Pythagoras’ life by holding up a collapsing roof until the great polymath could escape to safety. However, the man whose appetites were legendary had his comeuppance in the end when, as an old man, he attempted to recreate the glories of the past by trying to split a tree with his bare hands.

The sad denouement of the story has Milo of Croton becoming stuck in the tree so badly that he was eventually eaten by wolves.

Other figures may not have had such superhuman strength or powers, but amazingly their names still live on today, thousands of years after they fist took part in the ancient Olympics.

Astylos of Croton — the first victim of politics in the Olympics

Astylos of Croton (Ἄστυλος/Ἀστύαλος ὁ Κροτωνιάτης) starred in the Olympic Games from 488 to 480 BC. Amazingly, he was even mentioned in records from General Pausanias, where it was said that he excelled in three successive Olympic games, in the iconic track events of stadion and diaulos.

The writer Diodorus Siculus referred to him as “Astylos of Syracuse” and even uses his third Olympic victory to date the Persian invasion, in 480 BC. In Italy at the time, Astylos was famous for equaling the achievements of the great champion Chionis of Sparta by winning the stadion and diaulos events on three occasions, as well as winning the hoplitodromos event.

However, his fortunes took a turn for the much worse and Astylos died in disgrace after becoming a political target. When he agreed to participate in the 484 and 480 BC Olympic games in both 484 and 480 BC as a Syracusan citizen in honor of the tyrant Hieron, the people of his hometown of Croton summarily exiled him from the city forever.

Even the statue that had been erected in the great athlete’s honor in Croton was demolished as a mark of their extreme displeasure at their hometown boy’s decision as to whom he wanted to represent.

Some say that Astylos, as big name in the Olympics, had been bribed by officials in Syracuse to compete for them — perhaps making him the world’s first free agent, who was so desired that he could switch his allegiance to whatever city could pay enough for him.

Whatever the reality was, Astylos paid dearly for his decision, as his family home back in Croton was turned into a prison as a sign of disrespect, and reportedly even his own family also renounced him.

One thing is clear — some things never change, whether it be our adulation for ancient Greek athletes or the perennial problem of politics, which so often become inextricably linked to the Games that continue to be beloved the world over.

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