From legend to hero

Some champions of combat sports from the late sixth and fifth century BC survived in various legends as superhumans. Clear examples are the legends about the feats of Poulydamas, Milon and Theagenes and of the battle of Euthymos with the ghost of Temesa. Not only noble achievements were commemorated in legends; Kleomedes was famous for murdering sixty school children.
Theagenes, Poulydamas, Euthymos and Kleomedes eventually received the status of heroes, a kind of demigods who had an important position in Greek religion. The first two athletes were attributed healing powers. Other athletes presented themselves as descendants of a god: Diagoras claimed to descent from Hermes and Theagenes was sometimes called son of Herakles. Around Theagenes a whole cult developed in his home town Thasos.
After the fifth century, heroisation of athletes ceased. Some later athletes still became true sport legends, but divine powers were never attributed to them.
The heroisation of athletes is only attested in the combat sports. Runners generally had a slender build and succeeded because of their speed and superior form. As these characteristics strongly depend on age, their careers were mostly rather short. Fighters relied more on pure strength and often had a very imposing body, which reminded of famous heroes such as Herakles. Their career and fame could continue longer.

© KU Leuven, 2012