Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are settling one of the longest-running rivalries in the Olympics tonight

Rivalries like this one are rare in the Olympics.
Rivalries like this one are rare in the Olympics.
Image: Erich Schlegel-USA Today Sports
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At the Rio 2016 Olympics tonight (Aug. 11), the stage is set for what’s likely to be the culmination of one of the greatest Olympic rivalries in history.

For the fourth time in their careers, US swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte will face off in the finals of the 200-meter individual medley. Such long-running duels are rare in the quadrennial games. Not one but two athletes have to remain at the top of their sport for more than a decade to make it possible. Phelps and Lochte have done that, and while both are still amazing competitors, they’re aging. Phelps, now 31, is already the oldest man to win an individual gold in swimming. Lochte, 32, is battling injuries. Tonight will most likely be the last time they swim head-to-head in the Olympics.

For both, there’s a great deal on the line.

Phelps has won the gold in the 200m IM in every Olympics since 2004, often with Lochte finishing just behind him. In both 2004 and 2012, Lochte took silver, and in 2008 he won the bronze in Beijing, fighting back from a stomach bug. Phelps now has a chance to win a fourth consecutive gold in the 200 IM, while Lochte has the opportunity to finally beat Phelps.

But while this competition between friends is tipped toward Phelps, Lochte has his own victories. He bested Phelps in the 400m IM in the 2012 Olympics, and while he has mostly remained in Phelps’s shadow during the games, outside of them—and particularly during Phelps’s brief retirement—Lochte has been the world leader of late. He has won the world championships every year since 2009, and while Phelps admittedly didn’t compete in 2015 or 2013, he did in 2011. Lochte beat him, and set the standing world record of 1:54.00 in that race, a time even Phelps hasn’t topped.

Both have already made Olympic history. Phelps, who as of this writing has 21 gold medals, is the most decorated athlete in the modern Olympics. Even looking back to the games’ origins in ancient Greece, he’s tied with Leonidas of Rhodes, who had 12 titles. (Nine of Phelps’s gold medals have been in relays, and there were no relays in the ancient games.) If Phelps wins tonight, he becomes the undisputed greatest Olympian of all time.

Lochte, meanwhile, is now the second-most decorated Olympian in modern history. Both secured their latest gold medals on Aug. 9 in the US team’s victory in the 800m free relay. They swam as teammates in that race, and then yesterday faced off again as competitors in the semifinal of the 200m IM. Phelps just edged out Lochte for the win.

Tonight, the pair, who have combined for the 13 fastest times ever in the 200m IM, meet again, though whatever the outcome in the pool, it’s unlikely to affect their friendship. “We bump heads, and that’s why our rivalry is so good,” Lochte told USA Today in 2014, talking about Phelps coming out of retirement. “We have a friendship. Win or lose, outside of the pool we’re going to be friends.”