Michael Phelps is the face of the Summer Games. Team USA’s flag bearer won his 20th and 21st gold medals in Rio, giving him 25 medals in all, placing even more distance between him and Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, the second-most decorated Olympian of all time (18 medals from 1956 to 1964).
If Phelps was a country he would currently rank 11th out of 43 countries that own at least one medal in men’s swimming.
But what if Phelps didn’t exist? Might one of his main rivals, Hungary’s László Cseh, be considered the best male swimmer over the past decade?
Cseh finished second to Phelps three times — the 200-meter butterfly, 200-meter individual medley, and the 400-meter individual medley — in Beijing during the summer of 2008. That’s three more gold medals for an athlete that has none. Cseh would have also added a bronze in the 200-meter individual medley during the 2004 Summer Games.
In addition to Cseh, three more athletes — Serbia’s Milorad Čavić and Japan’s Takashi Yamamoto and Masato Sakai — would have a gold medal. Sakai was beaten out by Phelps in this year’s 200-meter butterfly by just four hundredths of a second.
Phelps’s teammate Ryan Lochte would also have a much different Olympic career. He’d have two more gold medals for his performances in the 200-meter individual medley (2004 and 2012), which in turn would push his overall ranking to No. 4 on the all-time list, tying American Don Schollander with seven swimming golds.
In total, there would be 10 different gold medal winners in the individual events that Phelps dominated and 16 new medalists who previously missed the podium in prior Olympics, including Italy’s Alessio Boggiatto, who twice finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley since Phelps started competing in the event in 2004.
Twelve other swimmers would have had their bronze medals upgraded to silver, like Australia’s Andrew Lauterstein and Ukraine’s Andriy Serdinov in the 100-meter butterfly.
And who knows what the international community would have thought of then 18-year-old Park Tae-Hwan, only the second-ever South Korean swimmer to reach an Olympic final, who lost to a world-record time by Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle event in Beijing.
A total of 27 different swimmers would have seen their Olympic standing increase had Phelps not raced in individual events. But Team USA also has seven gold medals in relay events in which Phelps participated, and while it’s a little less clear what impact his absence would have there, those medals would likely be redistributed as well.
For example, in 2008 the U.S. men’s swim team set a world record in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay with Phelps producing a split time of 47.51 seconds. Perhaps replacing Phelps with one of the members — all of which swam split times slower than Phelps’s final time — causes a different result. After all, the U.S. beat France in the finals by just 0.08 seconds. And if Team USA doesn’t medal at all, Italy would have grabbed bronze, their first and only medal in the event since they started fielding a team in 1972.
In 2004, Phelps helped win gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay with a split time of 1 minute, 46.49 seconds, leading to Team USA beating Australia by 0.13 seconds. Neither Scott Goldblatt nor Dan Ketchum — two possible replacements for Phelps — swam faster than 1 minute, 48 seconds in Round 1 for the U.S. men’s team, illustrating how critical Phelps was to the team’s chances at reaching the podium.
Phelps also set more world records than any other swimmer (39) and is the current holder of seven such marks, leading to a vastly different set of record books if he had never been born: That’s a lot of alternative history due to the achievements of one man, even if he is the best swimmer on the planet.