Michael Phelps won 28 Olympic medals, the most ever. He won 23 gold medals, the most ever. He competed in his first Summer Games at age 15, one of America’s youngest Olympians ever. He won six golds at 19, a record eight at 23 and went out with five more at age 31.
You don’t need a Starbucks barista to tell you where he ranks among the sport’s greats.
But when the wonks at ESPN put their heads together to determine the 20 most “formidable, awe-inspiring and downright dominant athletes of the past two decades,” only two Olympic stars, track and field’s Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix, were on the list.
“Here's the issue: There were 34 swimming events at the 2016 Olympics, with three more coming in 2020,” ESPN's Peter Keating wrote in explaining Phelps' omission. “And while it makes no sense to count each as a distinct sport, like soccer or baseball, there's also no way to combine times across distances, disciplines, medleys and relays — and no one rating that weights national, international and Olympic competitions for an annual score among individual swimmers. We'd love to tell you where Phelps and Katie Ledecky rank on our list of most dominant athletes, but we can't. It's not our fault, it's the data!”
To which many smart people said: No, it is your fault.
By way of comparison, this is ESPN’s rationale for Felix’s inclusion: “And it's not just that Felix has more Olympic medals (nine) than any other U.S. woman track and field star. It's that she is tied for the most of any woman track and field star, period. The difference? Felix hauled in six golds and three silvers. Merlene Ottey, who shares top honors, claimed no golds, three silvers and six bronzes.”
Which sounds a whole lot less compelling than their would-be rationale for Phelps’ inclusion: “And it’s not just that Phelps has more Olympic gold medals (23) than the combined medal count (21) of the second- and third-most decorated U.S. Olympians (Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis). It’s that he has 10 more total medals than any Olympian ever. Phelps hauled in 23 golds, three silvers and two bronzes. His runner-up, Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, claimed nine golds, five silvers and four bronzes.”