We like to think we’ve made a lot of social, scientific, and technological progress throughout the last few centuries, but that’s not always the case. Many studies have shown that our ancestors from various times were smarter, more practical, and tougher than we are. For example, many contemporary historians suggest that an unarmed battle between modern soldiers and the Spartans or Vikings of the past would result in a bloody mess for today’s fighters.
When it comes to sports, we also believe our athletes are faster, stronger, and have more endurance than those who came before, but we tend to forget all the things (such as performance-enhancing drugs, advanced equipment, medical advances, and specialized nutrition) that modern athletes have to aid them in becoming the best. However, even under these circumstances, it seems as though certain historical athletes would have demolished the most elite sportsmen we have today. A simple look at the following athletes just might convince you.
To understand the greatness of Milo of Croton, one has to take note that he remains to this day – nearly 2,600 years after his reign – the most decorated Olympic wrestler, with seven victories at seven different Olympic games. He won the boy’s wrestling tournament in 540 BC at the 60th Olympics, and went on to win the men’s competition a record six times from the 61st through the 66th Olympiad. He had an estimated 1,200 wins and one loss over age 45, while the modern record held by the greatest wrestler of our day – Aleksandr Karelin – is 887 wins and two losses.
Milo’s size and physique were described as out of this world, and his strength and technique perfect, which led many people to believe he was the son of Zeus. Ancient sources report that he would show off his strength by holding his arm out, fingers outstretched, with no man able to bend even his pinky finger. Another source claims that during his prime he carried a four-year-old cow on his back to the Olympic stadium and sacrificed it to Zeus with his bare hands.
Diagoras of Rhodes
Arguably the most decorated and famous boxer of antiquity, ancient Greek historians described Diagoras as a huge man who moved like a teenager and had extremely fast hands. He won twice at the Olympics, in true dominant fashion, and never tasted defeat according to the available historical records. He was extremely impressive not only for his size but also for his unique boxing technique. They called him Euthymachos (“straight fighting”) because he never ducked or sidestepped a blow, but used his chin and body as a shield. Even though his footwork and speed was one of kind, he preferred to please his fans by going toe-to-toe with his opponents… well, for as long as they could last (think GGG x 5).
His three sons and two grandsons went on to win six Olympic laurel crowns in boxing, wrestling, and pankration (similar to ultimate fighting), making the Diagoras family the most successful in the history of Olympic combat sports to this day. Two of his nephews also went on to be boxing champions. Legend has it Diagoras died of joy over his success and the success of his descendents. Eat that, Gracie and Klitschko families!
Chionis of Sparta
Chionis of Sparta was an athletically gifted runner with long arms and legs – often described as the fastest runner in antiquity – who went on to win three consecutive titles in both the diaulos and the stadion (two different foot races) in 664, 660, and 656 BC. However, these six victories are not his real claim to fame. Chionis was described as an even better jumper than a runner, but unfortunately, there were no jumping competitions at the ancient Olympics.
Historical records suggest that at the 656 BC games, Chionis jumped a then-record of 7.05 meters. In other words, Chionis could have won with that 2,600-year-old jump at the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896, which would also place him among the top eight at a further ten Olympics, up to and including the 1952 games in Helsinki. If you’re still not impressed, there’s more to his amazing athleticism.
Chionis was an even better triple jumper, capable of jumping as far as 15.85 meters. Although the rules of such jumps are not really clear and some historians have suggested that jumpers only needed two jumps instead of three, such a record under modern rules would have still won Chionis the modern Olympic title right up to the 1952 games as well. What is more, according to sources, jumpers back then could have jumped that far running only a third of the distance modern jumpers need to run in order to jump, barefoot and on rough, rocky course.
Theagenes of Thasos
Theagenes of Thasos is possibly the fighter with the most recorded victories in all combat sports. Often described as an extremely strong, muscular, and tall man, Theagenes won two Olympic laurel crowns, in boxing in 480 BC and pankration in 476 BC. He competed for 22 years in every major combat competition of his time (boxing, pankration, wrestling), winning various titles all across the ancient world. According to Greek historian Pausanias, he won an estimated 1,400 fights; about 1,200 more victories than Willie Pep, who, with 229 wins, is considered the winningest boxer of our day.
Polydamas of Skotoussa
Polydamas was the pankration champion at the Olympics in 408 BC, where he dominated his opponents with the kind of ease that had never been seen before. He has been described as an incredibly strong and big man whose size and power were unmatched, while one of his nonathletic achievements included the brutal killing of a wild lion with his bare hands in an attempt to imitate the mythical Heracles. His unique achievements made him popular all over the known world and King Darius of Persia, impressed by the stories he had heard, sent his men with gifts to invite him to Persia, where he organized similar combat events. Polydamas accepted the invitation and when he arrived, Darius picked the three best wrestlers to fight him. After a short fight, Polydamas killed two and the third ran away.
Tragically, he became a victim of his own immense strength when he tried to stop the roof of a cave from falling in. His friends fled and reached safety, but Polydamas didn’t make it out alive.
Leonidas of Rhodes
At the 2016 Olympics, Michael Phelps broke an Olympic record that was over 2,000 years old by surpassing the 12 individual titles won by Leonidas of Rhodes. But who was Leonidas? He was the most decorated ancient Olympian and one of the most famous runners of antiquity whose unique achievement seems unbreakable even by today’s standards when it comes to track and field. For four consecutive Olympiads (164–152 BC), he won the three major races of the time – the stadion, the diaulos, and the armor race – for a total of 12 medals in individual events.
Phelps may have broken his record, but let’s keep in mind that the most decorated Olympian of the modern Games had the luxury of taking part in five individual events in order to break the record, while Leonidas only had three. As for a track and field athlete of our times? Usain Bolt has only six gold medals in individual events, exactly half of Leo’s victories.
Iccus of Taranto
Iccus of Taranto was the champion of the pentathlon at the 70th Games (470 BC), and he is widely considered to be the father of modern gymnastics, calisthenics, and sports nutrition. He became widely famous for the way he prepared himself physically and mentally before competing according to ethical-religious Pythagorean concepts by abstaining from sex and eating a very healthy diet. The Greek historian Pausanias called him the best gymnast he ever saw, and he received great praise from the philosopher Plato as well. Since gymnastics was not included in the ancient Olympics, Iccus lost interest and became a teacher of healthy lifestyles and a trainer of gymnasts instead.
Xenophon of Corinth
Xenophon of Corinth was a unique breed of athlete who would put most contemporary track and field athletes to shame. At the 79th Olympiad (464 BC) he won both the individual footrace (stadion) as well as the pentathlon. What’s even more amazing is that it took him no more than several hours to win six different competitions. How many modern athletes do you think could have won two different track races, the javelin throw, the discus throw, the long jump, and a wrestling tournament in less than 24 hours?
Cimon Coalemos was one of the most popular chariot race organizers in ancient Greece and an incredible rider who won the Olympic chariot race three consecutive times, one of the most important competitions of the games. Cimon is often described by various sources (including in Herodotus’s Histories and Plutarch’s Life of Cimon) as a marvelous charioteer and rider with unbelievable skills that would put most modern jockeys to shame. His influence on the horses he rode was so unique that people believed he talked to them with the help of the gods.
Sostratos of Sikyon
Sostratos was a unique pankratiast from Sikyon near Corinth, who excelled in grappling and became famous for defeating most of his opponents with his unusual style. More than two thousand years before Brazilian jiu-jitsu comes into existence, Sostratos would grip his opponent by the fingers, arms, legs, and neck and subdue them quickly. He won three consecutive victories at the Olympic Games (364, 360, 356 BC), as the inscription on his statue at Olympia indicates. He also won 12 tournaments in other competitions of the time, such as the Nemean and Isthmian games. His feat of three Olympic victories in the pankration was equaled by only three others and surpassed by no one in the over 1000-year history of the ancient Olympic Games.
Melankomas of Caria
Ancient boxing was an extremely brutal and violent sport. There were no rounds, no breaks, and the fight was over only when one man was knocked out or admitted defeat. Unlike the modern sport, there was no rule against hitting an opponent when he was down, there were no weight classes, and instead of the huge boxing gloves worn today, ancient boxers wrapped leather belts (ouch) around their hands and wrists while leaving their fingers free. As a result, many deaths occurred during the tournaments. Most of the boxers were monstrous-looking because of the punishment they took and because of their immense size (because what ordinary dude would participate in such a sport?), but not Melankomas.
From the available historical records, Melankomas was described as a gorgeous young man, quite tall but not huge like many of his opponents, in great shape but on the slim side, who used his smarts and superb technique to win his fights. Way before modern defensive wizards of the sport like Willie Pep and Floyd Mayweather, Melankomas’s footwork was described as fascinating, his defensive skills unmatched, and he defeated his opponents without ever being hit himself, not even a single blow. He was reputed to have fought for two days if he had to and to have forced his opponents into defeat from fatigue or frustration from not being able to hit him. He was crowned the Olympic boxing champion at the 49 BC Games, and also won many other events without ever losing a single bout.
Phanas of Pellene
Phanas was an ancient Greek athlete who won the stadion race at the 65th Olympiad (512 BC). He was also the first recorded athlete to win all three races at the Olympics: the stadion, the double race (diaulos), and the race in full armor (hoplitodromos). It is said he was so fast that he could win the stadion even if he was wearing full armor. Even though we can’t be sure about the times these men would have achieved in today’s competitions (considering the modern advancements in the sport such as footwear), we’re pretty sure Usain Bolt wouldn’t be able to walk fast in bare feet on a rough, rocky path under bronze armor that would add an extra 80 pounds, let alone run.
Arrachion of Phigalia
One of the greatest and most dominant pankratiasts ever, Arrachion of Phigalia died during the games. To get an idea what the pankration was all about, most experts describe it as a pre-modern version of MMA, a dangerous combat sport in which almost everything was permitted – including punching, kicking, and grappling – except biting, eye poking, and attacking your opponent’s genitals. Arrachion won the event three times at the Olympics and could have won even more had he not died during his last victory at the 4th Olympiad (564 BC). During his final match, in a tough position wherein his opponent grabbed his neck, Arrachion managed to make him raise his hand (the sign of defeat) by twisting his leg, as he himself was dying. Arrachion was pronounced the winner, a fact that makes him the only Olympic champion to be awarded first place after death.
Every Elite Ancient Javelin Thrower
This shouldn’t come as a surprise given how our ancestors used spears for centuries to find food, win wars, and protect their households. Even though not much is known about ancient javelin-throwing, contemporary historians have managed to estimate that most elite throwers averaged throws of about 92 m. And while some might argue that javelins back then were probably lighter (only a theory, since there’s no solid proof), it is also necessary to point out that javelin throwers, like all athletes of the time, competed without special equipment, barefoot, and were given only a few steps to throw, instead of the pretty long run-up that is available for modern javelin throwers.
More importantly, javelin-throwing was part of the pentathlon contest and followed the sprint. In other words, athletes didn’t give their best effort at the throw so as to preserve energy for the three events that followed (the discus throw, the long jump, and wrestling), plus they had already participated in a track race before they even started. Still, they averaged a throw of about 92 m, while the current world record held by Jan Železný is 98.48 m. All you need to do is take into account all the factors and you can easily conclude – just like most modern experts – that if ancient javelin throwers solely focused on the javelin event, they could have easily broken the 100 m barrier even without modern equipment and performance-enhancing drugs.