Understanding Phelps’ dominance

Michael Phelps claims that he swam his last Olympic race Saturday night in the 4X100 medley relay. His teammates aren’t convinced of that though.

Michael Phelps
At age 31, Phelps has said that this was his last Olympics. (Wikimedia Commons)

I would love to see Phelps keep competing. After all, US swimmer Anthony Ervin just won a gold medal at age 35. That is how old Phelps would be when the 2020 Olympics roll around.

Let’s assume though that the greatest Olympian ever really is done. It is time to put into perspective what he has accomplished.

His gold in the relay gave him 28 medals from Olympic competition. He is far and away number one on the list of most awarded male swimmers of all time, with second belonging to current teammate Ryan Lochte. Lochte “only” owns 12 medals of his own. An impressive seven of those are individual medals, meaning he was not part of a team that won the medal. Phelps has 13 individual medals, more than Lochte has total medals.

Outside of the US, the competition isn’t even close. Ian Thorpe of Australia is the top-ranked, non-American swimmer in terms of total medals in history with nine. Phelps blows away all swimming competition, with most of it coming within his own country.

Let’s looking outside swimming though, at the Olympics as a whole. How well has Phelps done there? Well, it turns out that he leads that group too, once again by a sizable margin. Larisa Latynina amassed 18 medals during the 50s and 60s competing for the Soviet Union in gymnastics. Reminder, Phelps has 23 gold medals alone and 28 in total. He has 10 more medals than any other Olympic athlete in history.

In terms of finishing first, the gap is even more staggering. Latynina is tied for second with nine golds along with Americans Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis as well as Finland’s Paavo Nurmi. The fact that Phelps has more than double the number of golds of any other athlete in history should speak volumes about the level of his dominance.

And if all of that wasn’t enough, the New York Times reported that Phelps broke records so old, Jesus wasn’t even born yet when it was set. Phelps won his 13th individual gold medal in the 200 meter IM at Rio this year, which pushed him past Leonidas of Rhodes. Leonidas won his final Olympic medals in the year 152 B.C. That means that Phelps toppled a 2,168-year old record. Just consider that for a second. Done? Yeah, it still hasn’t really sunk in.

The modern iteration of the games hasn’t provided Phelps with any real competition either. Latynina along with fellow Soviet members Nikolai Adrianov and Boris Shakhlin all have six individual gold medals. However, Phelps only narrowly beats out Latynina in terms of total individual medals, by a count of 16 to 14. Still, in ever sense of the word, Phelps is the greatest.

Phelps added six more medals, five gold and one silver, in Rio. (Wikimedia Commons)

This level of dominance is unprecedented. No one has ever had this kind of success in really any other sport. It is not that Phelps just wins these races, he also swims his way through qualifying and semifinal rounds before even reaching the chance to compete for a spot on the podium.

Phelps competed in 30 Olympic finals during his long career. He won a medal in 28 of them. That means that Phelps reached the podium in 93.33 percent of those finals and won gold 76.7 percent of the time. Overall, he competed in 63 Olympic events, including qualifying and semifinal rounds. He or his team finished first 45 times. Even if a medal wasn’t on the line, Phelps won 71.4 percent of the time in his career at the Olympics.

It is hard to really wrap your head around what Phelps has done in his Olympic career. The reality is we will probably never see anyone like him again. The only one who might come close is Katie Ledecky, but we have a long ways to go before we can start truly comparing their medals.


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