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.

Michael_Phelps
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.

Is this the second coming of the Dream Team?

Dream Team JordanPretending that this team is as good as the “Dream Team” from 1992 is probably pushing it. However, if you can march out a starting lineup that consists of Chris Paul, James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who are you going to lose to? Even if those guys need a rest, you can roll out a lineup of Steph Curry, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMarcus Cousins. Even that lineup isn’t getting beat by anyone else in the world.

This is the most talent in a US camp that we’ve seen in quite some time. We just watch Team USA lose to Canada in the Pan-American games. And it wasn’t even in the finals. That team consisted on many college players, led by Ron Baker and Melo Trimble. The players who were already pros on that squad were Anthony Randolph and Ryan Hollins from the NBA and a few others hailing from overseas leagues. It has been some time since we’ve seen a top flight USA team.

LeBron_James_Even in 2014, when the USA won the FIBA World Cup yet again, some of the top end talent was not there. James, Durant and Paul were all watching from home. That’s three fifths of a potential starting lineup. Like I said, the US still dominated the competition. They won their five group play games by an average of 33.2 points per game. Every other team in their group finished with a negative point differential as well due to the massive losses at the hands of the US. In bracket play, the US’ closest game came in the quarterfinals against Mexico, and the US won by 23. It was a landslide the whole way.

Chris PaulIt begs the question of does the US need to send an even more stacked team to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil next summer? Obviously, any team can lose on any day but sending in even more reinforcements seems like overkill. We all saw what can happen to stars trying to play at the international level when Paul George careened into the barrier and destroyed his knee. That could very well happen to any of the other superstars walking out on the court. They could suffer a serious injury in a game that really could be won without them.

Stephen_Curry2Now if everyone left it would be an issue but for guys like Durant and George who are coming off major injuries that prevented them from participating in most of the previous NBA season, is this worth the risk? Both of them are in camp with the team, which doesn’t guarantee they will be playing in Rio but the possibility is there. I’m sure Oklahoma City and Indiana would both prefer if their two star players rested up and trained on their own, preparing to be on the court in the NBA this season. (Side note: George has since left camp.)

Anthony_DavisI know I sound critical of the best players participating on Team USA. The truth is that not all of that star power is needed to win an Olympic Gold for the US. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a ton of fun to watch these guys play together. It will almost be like the NBA All Star game but this time the outcome has some consequence. It should be an offensive barrage as well making the game just that much more entertaining. Those five guys, Paul, Harden, Durant, James and Davis scored a combined 118 points per night in the NBA this season. They obviously all can’t hit those numbers now as their usage ratings combine to reach 144 percent.

Harden_DurantIt may be a risk but it is one that we as fans of basketball should hope they continue to take. There have been some new precautions taken to avoid repeats of George’s gruesome injury. And if we get to see the best US players on the court together dominating it will be a sight to behold, even if games are blowouts. It probably couldn’t touch the “Dream Team” from ’92 but there is a good chance this will be the most talented team Team USA assembles since that point. That final 12-man roster is going to be stacked.