Only two athletes in any sport, discus thrower Al Oerter and Carl Lewis in the long jump, have ever pulled off the feat of four consecutive individual titles in the same event. However neither of those Olympic greats can come close to matching Phelps’ incredible record of 12 individual titles.
In fact, more amazingly, according to Olympic historians, the American’s achievement has only ever been equalled by one man – Leonidas – who claimed a dozen running titles at the Ancient Games – over 2000 years ago! If Phelps takes gold in the 200m IM, then he will leave the greatest athlete of antiquity in his wake too!
Leonidas of Rhodes was acclaimed as the greatest sprinter of the Ancient Games. Competing in the Games of 164 BC, he captured the crown in three separate foot races — the stadion, the diaulos, and the hoplitodromos. He repeated this feat in the next three subsequent Olympics, in 160 BC, in 156 BC, and finally in 152 BC at the age of 36. Leonidas's lifetime record of 12 individual Olympic crowns was unmatched in not only the ancient world, but until Rio 2016, when Phelps claimed gold in the 200m butterfly on 9 August.
Leonidas was renowned not only for his unsurpassed number of victories but, much like Phelps, for his versatility as an athlete. His favoured races required speed and strength in differing degrees; the stadion and the diaulos, 200-yard and 400-yard races respectively, were best suited to sprinters, while the hoplitodromos, a diaulos performed with bronze armour and shield, required more muscular strength and endurance.
Philostratus the Athenian wrote in his Gymnastikos that Leonidas's versatility made all previous theories of runners' training and body types obsolete. Like Phelps in the pool, Leonidas broke the mould on the track.
Whether Phelps is aware of such comparisons with his ancient Olympian counterpart is unclear, but there is no doubt he is fully focused on ensuring that he bows out of his final Games on a high.
"Leaving everything in the pool one last time is what I am going to do and if that is good enough to win we'll see," the 31-year-old shrugged, as he looked ahead to the latest session of what has been an incredibly draining week. As well as the 200m IM final, on 11 August he also has to contend with a heat and a semi-final of the 100m butterfly.
Three more races in a day for the workaholic Phelps may work in the favour of his 200 IM rivals headed by his old rival, compatriot and Rio room-mate Ryan Lochte, who qualified second fastest behind his compatriot.
Lochte, in his only individual event of the week, is chasing a seventh Olympic gold, but he admits that in order to stand a chance of bettering Phelps he will need something very special.
“Any chance I can get to race Michael is the best,” says Lochte, who revealed that the two never talk about swimming in their room, but instead prefer to play cards. “It's going to take a perfect performance to beat him. He’s he toughest competitor and racer I have had to go up against.”