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.
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.