Looking back to the golden age

British physiologist Harry Rossiter suggests that ancient Greeks were more physically fit than modern endurance athletes:

Dr Rossiter measured the metabolic rates of modern athletes rowing a reconstruction of an Athenian trireme, a 37m long warship powered by 170 rowers seated in three tiers. Using portable metabolic analysers, he measured the energy consumption of a sample of the athletes powering the ship over a range of different speeds to estimate the efficiency of the human engine of the warship. The research is published in New Scientist.
By comparing these findings to classical texts that record details of their endurance, he realised that the rowers of ancient Athens -- around 500BC -- would had to have been highly elite athletes, even by modern day standards.
Says Dr Rossiter: "Ancient Athens had up to 200 triremes at any one time, and with 170 rowers in each ship, the rowers were clearly not a small elite. Yet this large group, it seems, would match up well with the best of modern athletes. Either ancient Athenians had a more efficient way of rowing the trireme or they would have to be an extremely fit group. Our data raise the interesting notion that these ancient athletes were genetically better adapted to endurance exercise than we are today."

Then again, Pheidippides did fall down dead after the first marathon...

(via Dienekes, who is skeptical)