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Step Aside, Leonidas: Michael Phelps Breaks 2,000-Year-Old Olympic Record

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At the Olympics in Rio, athletes have been breaking records every day. And last night Michael Phelps broke a record held for more than 2,000 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Unintelligible). And Michael Phelps has done it again.

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: That tape was from NBC's broadcast when Phelps earned his 22nd-career gold medal with a win in the 200-meter individual medley. It was also his 13th individual Olympic title. That broke a 2,168-year-old record held by the legendary Leonidas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "300")

GERARD BUTLER: (As King Leonidas) This is Sparta.

CORNISH: All right. Sorry, film and comic geeks. It was not actually the Leonidas of Sparta from "300." We're talking about Leonidas of Rhodes. He was a runner, not a fighter. And from 152 B.C. until, well, just last night, he held the record for most individual Olympic titles. And who was Leonidas of Rhodes? Olympic historian Bill Mallon explains via Skype.

BILL MALLON: Almost nothing is known of his life. Leonidas is a mystery to us except for his Olympic races.

CORNISH: We do know that winning an Olympic race back then didn't earn you a medal. That's more of a modern Olympics thing. The same goes for silver and bronze medals for second and third place. Ancient Olympic events were winner-take-all. The winner got an olive wreath, glory, and, according to Bill Mallon, a really nice parting gift.

MALLON: They were given awards after the games, often large jars or canisters of olive oil which you could sell for quite a bit of money. And I've actually seen the analysis. Some of these victories was worth in today's dollars 50 or $60,000, so not bad for a runner.

CORNISH: Especially if you were Leonidas of Rhodes. Michael of Baltimore may have earned millions of dollars and breathless praise for his Olympic accomplishments, but if he wants 12 large containers of olive oil, he'll have to get those himself, just like the rest of us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.