With all due respect to Larisa Latynina, the Soviet-era gymnast whom Phelps passed this week for the top spot in the career medals count, those grainy old films of her routines look almost comical today. It is just as futile to compare Phelps to Lewis or Mark Spitz or Paavo Nurmi or anyone else. It's something to shout about on ESPN, but then what isn't?
What matters is Phelps' mountain of achievement, which becomes more majestic and remarkable as he piles medals on the peak.
He added another historic first Thursday. By beating Lochte, Phelps became the first male swimmer to win the same event in three consecutive Summer Olympics. It sounds like an obscure note, but the more you think about it, the more astonishing it is.
First, because he did it, winning the 200 IM in Athens in 2004 at age 19, winning it in Beijing at age 23, and winning it in London at age 27. And second, because no one else has ever done it.
"I think it's something pretty cool and pretty special to be able to three-peat," Phelps said, veering as close as he gets to bragging. "I fell short in the first couple of events. To be able to do something no other male has done in the sport, it's a pretty cool feeling."
His career has been a collection of firsts - first ever to do this, first ever to do that - but he has arrived at the point where he is experiencing lasts. He will retire after Saturday's final relay race, and he is taking note of every milestone.
"I raced my last semifinal [in the 100-meter butterfly]," Phelps said. "Tomorrow is my last individual final."
And this was his last-ever race against Lochte, something Phelps pointed out while the two were waiting to be introduced. Their rivalry was supposed to take a major turn here. Phelps was older and not nearly as driven or locked-in as he was for his eight-gold-medal tour de force in Beijing. Lochte was better and stronger and hungry to make these Games his answer to Phelps' 2008 show.
It didn't work out that way. Lochte had what any reasonable person would conclude was a fine swim meet here.
"I'm going back to my country with five medals," Lochte said. "I'm happy with that."
But for all his talk, he couldn't make this his Olympics.
"Yeah, I wanted to get all golds in my events," Lochte said. "It didn't happen. I'm going to have to live with that and learn from it."
Ultimately, he couldn't eclipse Phelps. After his opening-night gold in the 400 IM, Lochte has been merely good. He has served mostly to prove just how incredible Phelps really was in Beijing.
On this night, for example, Lochte had to race the 200 backstroke less than 30 minutes before his final race against Phelps.
"I was fortunate," Phelps said.
But Phelps did those kinds of doubles in Beijing, and he never faltered. No one could take advantage of his ambitious program of events. Lochte wasn't so lucky. Phelps was precisely the guy capable of capitalizing on any weakness in his rival.
"I decided to go out hard for the first 100 meters and see what happened," Phelps said. What happened was what he knew would happen. Lochte had to push hard to keep up and expended too much energy. He rallied late to claim silver, but Phelps led the whole way.
After all this time, after all those medals, after all that success, after one very bad night in the 400 IM - after all that, Phelps still could pull a vintage performance from somewhere deep inside. He still could seize an Olympic moment, something he certainly has done as well as anyone in history.
"It is tough to get up and race the best in the world in every single event," Phelps said. "It's something not many people can say they've done. It's something that's kind of fun to try."
Nobody ever did it better. And there can be no debate about this: It was our privilege to watch him.
Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan