5 Ancient Athletes Who Dominated the Olympics Thousands of Years Ago

As the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro approach, let’s take a look back at the international games’  predecessor back in ancient Greece. Sure, they might not have had Michael Phelps or Gabby Douglas, but there were still some pretty big-name athletes who brought home wreaths and took first place in a ton of contests.

1. Leonidas of Rhodes: Not to be confused with the Spartan king of the same name from 300this Leonidas was one of the most famous runners in the ancient world. Eusebius recorded that he won three different foot races in four consecutive Olympic games, making him  “the first and only man to win twelve Olympic crowns over four Olympiads.” This record was unprecedented; Pausanias gushed, “However, the most famous runner was Leonidas of Rhodes. He maintained his speed at its prime for four Olympiads, and won twelve victories for running.”

2. Milo of Croton: This sixth-century B.C.E. wrestler was a mighty man. Extraordinarily strong, he was a war hero, won six wrestling championships at the Olympics, and reportedly lugged a baby calf on his shoulders in order to bulk up until the critter became a fully-grown cow. Milo was a force to be reckoned with: Pausanias related that he would tie a ribbon around his head, then flex his muscles so hard he’d break the headband.

Milo of Croton on a shield. Image via Sailko/Wikimedia Commons.

In order to maintain his muscular physique, Milo had to consume tons of calories. His diet itself was legendary: He gobbled down ten kilograms of meat, ten kilograms of bread, and ten liters of wine per day, or so the story went. Another time, he carried a fully-grown bull around the Olympic stadium, sacrificed it, and ate all of it in one sitting. These stories were probably exaggerated, but there was no doubt Milo was a big dude!

3. Cynisca of Sparta: Born into the royal house of Sparta in the fifth century B.C.E., Cynisca, Pausanias said, ” was exceedingly ambitious to succeed at the Olympic games, and was the first woman to breed horses and the first to win an Olympic victory.” She won two consecutive victories in the four-course chariot race; she was a tough sell for many people, since women were forbidden from Olympian ceremonies, although apparently (technically) not from participating in the actual games themselves.

A statue she dedicated at Olympia bore the following inscription:

Kings of Sparta were my fathers and brothers,and I, Cynisca, winning the race with my chariotof swift-footed horses, erected this statue. I assert that I am the only woman in all Greece who won this crown.

How did Cynisca manage to flout convention and enter the games? Well, it didn’t hurt that she was from an influential royal family; some have suggested that her brother the king pushed her to race, perhaps to show off his own money in breeding the best horses. Or Cynisca’s entry could have been an insult to Alcibiades, frenemy of Sparta who’d once dominated the chariot races. Alcibiades betrayed the Spartans, though, by sleeping with a former monarch’s wife, so Cynisca’s victories in the sport he once dominated would have, in effect, been a dig at his manhood. After all, if a “mere” woman could win in his sport, how great could Alcibiades have been?

4. Cratinus of Aegeira: A talented athlete, Cratinus was also the hottest guy of his time. Pausanias quipped that he “was the most handsome man of his time and the most skillful wrestler.” He won a wrestling match in the youth category, and he was allowed to erect a statue of his trainer, an anomaly for the time period. Typically, only athletes were depicted in statuary at Olympia, but Cratinus was a generous soul and appealed to allow this rule to be broken. What a nice young man! One can imagine he was a sweetheart to his mom, too.

5. Bilistiche: Looks like Cynisca paved the way for female Olympians! Meet Bilistiche, whom Pausanias told us was “a woman from the seaboard of Macedonia” that won chariot races with foal (rather than adult horses). This was a new sport, and Bilistiche positively dominated in two different contests: the two-horse and four-horses races. Poets slyly insulted her by calling her a superb “rider” (hint, hint), complimenting her while insulting her.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus, lover of Bilistiche. Image via Carole Raddato/Marcus Cyron/Louvre Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

But her infamy didn’t stop there. It appeared that she also became one of the many mistresses of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the second Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt. Plutarch called her a ” barbarian courtesan bought in the market,” a woman “in whose honor the Alexandrians erected temples and altars, with inscriptions to Venus Belestiche as marks of the king’s affection to her?” So her royal lover basically turned her into a goddess, building temples to Venus (a.k.a. Aphrodite) with Bilistiche’s name as an epithet added on to the divinity’s own! Bilistiche may even have gotten her prize foals as a gift from Ptolemy.

Feature image via AKG Anonymous/Universal-Prints.


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