Since Beijing, Ryan Lochte has legitimately swum himself into the same stratosphere as Michael Phelps. Whether or not their rivalry is real, or by definition a rivalry at all, people are talking about Ryan and Michael as equals. But they’re not.
Lochte is currently the bigger star. He has been for some time. He is currently more accomplished, more recognizable and overall more interesting.
In a sport like swimming, we often measure athletes against each other in terms of their Olympic performances. It is the biggest stage. Of course, Michael has 10 more Olympic medals than Ryan. But that only means Phelps has a better Olympic history, not that he is better today. Swimming should be measured like more traditional professional sports, in snapshots, only as good as your last game. Before Wimbledon you could have argued that Roger Federer was the best of all time, but that Djokovic or Nadal were the best in the world. (Of course in the time since, Federer has put his name back in the latter category). With similar reasoning, I would argue that the most recent World Championships, where Ryan swam to 5 gold medals, including beating Phelps head to head in 2, makes him swimming’s world #1.
With the media explosion in the months leading up to London, Ryan Lochte has come out on top. Lochte has sizzled on magazine covers such as Vogue, Men’s Health and TIME Magazine. He is the US Olympic Team Ralph Lauren poster boy. He gets himself trending with hashtags like #Jeah and nicknames like Reezy. Michael has more followers, but that is changing pretty quickly. (Phelps also frequently uses the word ‘tweeps’ but that is content for another entire blog post). It is abundantly clear that Ryan Lochte is just more marketable. In fact, he is a sport sponsor’s dream. Charismatic, likable, cool and now…the best at what he does.
Not disrespecting perhaps the most dominant Olympic performance in history, Michael just doesn’t have the same star power. Sport is a business, especially the Olympics. The burning reason why Tiger still leads golf coverage or Beckham still fills stadiums is because they are stars, regardless whether the reasons are positive or negative. It definitely isn’t because they are the best. But Lochte is, which makes his trajectory steep.
Ryan Lochte will fill your television screen in a few days and charm the world. There is no question. The only doubt is whether or not Phelps can pull a Federer and remind the world how good he is.