South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
Hundreds of athletes performed outstanding feats over the two weeks of the Rio Olympics, but three names stand out. Hundreds left their contemporaries trailing in their wake, but these three had every competitor ever to perform their sport soundly beaten: Phelps, Bolt and Biles.
Here’s why the swimmer, the sprinter and the gymnast will be remembered as all-time greats, not just the stars of the 2016 Games.
Swimming dominated the first week, and in the aquatic centre a familiar face was out to demonstrate that his talents were undimmed by advancing years.
Michael Phelps is a story of enduring class. He had skipped both the 2013 and 2015 World Championships, but on his return to the world stage at the age of 31 — male swimmers tend to peak in their early 20s — he was back to his best.
Some detractors have suggested that Phelps is only as widely and loudly celebrated as he is because swimming offers so many events, while track athletes — for example — have comparatively fewer opportunities to win gold.
But to make this accusation is to confuse the number of events in which Phelps excels, with the number of events the typical elite swimmer can win.
Despite sitting out the last two World Championships, the “Baltimore Bullet” has 28 golds in individual events at elite level. Ryan Lochte, a former reality-television star, is second, with 12, and the average number of world and Olympic titles won by male swimmers with at least one gold by the age of 31 is just 2.2.
In short, Phelps’s gold medal-winning trajectory makes it look like he is taking part in a different sport. Great swimmers are usually world class in one stroke. If it’s the right stroke, they might win the medley, too. But Phelps has multiple individual golds in butterfly, freestyle and medley (plus a silver in backstroke at the 2006 Pan-Pacific Championships).
Picking up where Phelps looks set to leave off is his compatriot Katie Ledecky. After arriving on the elite stage with a gold medal in London as a 15-year-old, Rio was Ledecky’s chance to step up from prodigy to superstar. And step up she did, winning individual golds in the 200, 400 and 800m freestyle.
Ledecky could well chase down many of Phelps’s records over time — she has more top-level golds to her name than Phelps did at the same age — but for now she is the owner of a record of her own — the 19-year-old has lined up in 11 individual finals at Olympic and Worlds level in her career to date. And the number of gold medals? Eleven.
One legitimate criticism of the praise for Ledecky and Phelps is that they have more opportunities to win world and Olympic titles than other great swimmers did decades ago. At the 1972 Olympics Mark Spitz was almost as dominant as Phelps at his peak, but the World Aquatics Championships had yet to be established.
We can adjust for the impact of today’s increased opportunities by treating them as “medal inflation”. The method I am using here is crude, but mathematically sound: if a swimmer had 10 opportunities to win gold over a four-year period in 1970, but would have 20 today, each gold medal they won during that period is multiplied by two.
Once attention moved from the swimming pool to the athletics track at the midpoint of the Rio Games, there was no question who would be the star. Usain Bolt did not disappoint, adding the “triple double” — three successive Olympic titles in both the 100m and 200m — to his list of unprecedented achievements.
Like Phelps, Bolt now stands ahead of any other sprinter before him in terms of the number of elite international gold medals he has in individual events.
The only other who comes close to Bolt for weight of gold medals is Carl Lewis, whose raw speed allowed him to win golds for the US in not only the 100m and 200m, but also four consecutive Olympic titles in the long jump. If that combination sounds like something that could only happen in a previous era, think again: Tianna Bartoletta won gold in the women’s 4x100m and long jump in Rio.
But as with Phelps, we should probably be adjusting for medal inflation. The World Athletics Championships started later than their aquatic cousin, and only in 2001 became the regular, biennial event we know today.
After running the necessary calculations, Lewis overtakes Bolt. The American was already the world’s top sprinter and long jumper two years before the inaugural Worlds, and if we up-weight his early golds to take account of this, he reaches 17.5 golds in 2016 money, as it were.
But to reduce Bolt to his medal count is to do him a disservice. As impressive as the number of his victories is their margin, and his versatility across the different sprints.
When he set the current 100m world record of 9.58s in 2009, Bolt’s time was fully 4.3 standard deviations (SD) better than the mean of the 50 quickest men’s times that year. His 19.3s 200m in 2008 was a huge 4.6 SD better than the top 50s average (even though he ran quicker a year later, the relative margin was smaller).
And even though his focus on the shorter sprints means Bolt has not run the 400m since 2007, his personal best there is just 0.6 SD worse than the average of the top 50 athletes specialising at that distance.
Another of the stars of Rio boasts a similar combination of versatility and excellence. US sprinter Allyson Felix won golds in both the 4x100m and 4x400m relays and only missed out on individual gold in the 200m by a dive’s length.
At 3.8 SD above the top 50 average, Felix has the best ever relative performance in the women's 200m** and ninth best ever in the 400m. Her fifth place finish in the final of the 100m at London 2012 was 1.5 SD above the average for the 50 fastest women that year. Felix’s average of 2.73 SD better than the top 50 in each event puts her only narrowly behind Bolt and Michael Johnson.
While swimming and athletics may be the blue riband events of the first and second weeks respectively, gymnastics also traditionally has a high profile, and its undoubted star was Simone Biles.
Since her debut at elite level in the 2013 World Championships, Biles has been regarded not as the best of the current crop of US gymnasts, but potentially the best ever.
To those who first heard of her two weeks ago, it might seem like she had just arrived on to the scene, but her three individual gold medals in Rio take Biles to 11 solo titles at Worlds and Olympic level, already level with the greats of women’s artistic gymnastics.
Where Larisa Latynina and Svetlana Khorkina took eight and nine years respectively to reach that total, Biles has managed it in just three, and at the much younger age of 19.
But that leads neatly to the next task: as in swimming and athletics, the frequency of championships has changed over the years, meaning an adjustment is in order if we are to compare medal hauls over different eras.
Biles’s tally looks slightly less impressive once we inflate the totals of Latynina and Věra Čáslavská, both of whom competed in the 1960s when the World Championships took place every four years, instead of every one or two years as they do today.
But this highlights another difficulty in making cross-generational comparisons in gymnastics: the increasing technical level of the routines, and changes in the equipment used.
We can see a proxy for this in the changing age distribution of gold medallists over time. Where today’s elite women gymnasts tend to win the bulk of their titles before their 20th birthday, the likes of Latynina were competing at the highest level well into their late-twenties, and beyond.
Speaking in 2012 about why women gymnasts in the mid-1900s had longer careers, Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine, told Sports Illustrated that “They were doing what are considered primitive gymnastics today … there are kids who are five years old who are doing those skills already.”
So perhaps Biles’s tally should be compared only to gymnasts from the modern era. Her next target in that case would be Khorkina, who last competed in the 2004 Athens Games. Biles has yet to commit to competing at either the Worlds or Olympics in future — the huge and highly specialised physical demands of women’s gymnastics today mean many retire in their early-twenties — but the extent of her superiority means she would have a better chance than most at adding to her total up to and at Tokyo 2020.
One more gold would make Biles the most decorated gymnast of all. Several more would surely make her the greatest, regardless of my medal inflation pseudo-science.
Would you have done this analysis differently? Can you think of better ways of dealing with medal inflation? Would you in fact have stopped short of embarking on this endeavour altogether? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter.
**Excluding athletes who have served a doping ban at any time.