Since the start of the Olympic Games in 776 BC, outstanding athletes have set records and become famous in both ancient Greece and in modern times.
Olympic records have a long and storied history. According to the BBC, for two thousand years, Leonidas of Rhodes held the record for the most Olympic medals earned. From 164 BC to 152 BC he won three separate races each time, including a 200-meter sprint, a 400-meter race and a race suited up in full armor.
American former competitive swimmer, Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in swimming in 1972, a record held for thirty-six years until in 2008 Olympian Michael Phelps won eight. By 2016 Phelps had broken Leonidas’ long-standing record by earning a total of twenty-eight Olympic medals, crowning him as the greatest Olympian athlete of all time.
In ancient Greece, Theagenes of Thasos was another celebrated athlete who became famous for winning at boxing, as well as pankration — a combination of boxing and wrestling. He entered competitions all over the Mediterranean area winning as many as fourteen hundred titles. A statue was erected in his honor.
Another Ancient Greek Olympian, Diagoras of Rhodes also won at boxing in 464 BC. According to the Olympics website, he stood almost still while boxing, always facing his challenger. His sons were also Olympiads and won five awards.
Phayllos of Croton who competed around the turn of the 5th century BC, was skilled in the long jump, discus and javelin throwing. Ancient records, of which there are very few, recorded his long jump at nearly fifty-four feet which is very unlikely.
Either they used a different type of measurement for the Games or the record keeper wanted to inflate Phayllos’ numbers. He was also a military hero after the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. He, too, received a statue in his honor. Hipposthenes and his son Etoimokles of Sparta won eleven titles between them.
In modern times athletes such as boxer Muhammad Ali, who at the time was using his given name of Cassius Clay, achieved greatness in the 1960 Games held in Rome, at the age of eighteen. He handily won all of the preliminary matches and finally defeated Zbigniew Pietrzykowski for the gold.
Thirteen-year-old Nadia Comaneci of Romania became the world’s youngest Olympian to win gold in all of her events. She still holds the record for achieving a perfect 10.0 score on the uneven bars in 1978 and repeated the feat six times.
Between the Moscow Olympics in 1975 and the Montreal Games in 1980 Comaneci brought home nine medals. She made big news again when she defected to the United States in 1989.
Mary Lou Retton won the overall gymnastics gold medal in the 1984 Games and went on to appear in commercials and movies, and lent her name to sports equipment for over thirty years.
The basketball team of Clyde Drexler, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Chris Mullin and David Robinson, several of whom became household names in professional basketball, won gold in 1992 and earned the nickname “The Dream Team.”
Sir Steve Redgrave became famous in Great Britain after winning gold medals at all five Olympic Games he attended.
Track and field great Florence Griffith-Joyner still holds Olympic records for the one hundred meter and two hundred meter run records set in 1988 bringing home three gold medals. Joyner died of an epileptic seizure just ten years later when she was only 38 years old.
At the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi-controlled Berlin, Jesse Owens won four gold medals and set a long jump record that stayed intact for twenty-five years, much to the chagrin of Adolf Hitler who expected his “Aryans” to sweep the Games. Surprisingly, Owens smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and succumbed to lung cancer in 1980.
Ian Harvey is a freelance writer and journalist and has contributed to various magazines and news websites.