In terms of personal and public narrative, LeBron James was the best athlete of the year, finally bringing Cleveland the title it had deserved for years. (That's the way Sports Illustrated saw it.) If you wanted to make it a 25-way tie, you could argue the same thing on behalf of the Chicago Cubs. If you look at 2016 triumph in the course of a historic career, then Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt would be on the list. But when it comes to the person who was most dominant on the biggest stage, who was the biggest athlete at the biggest event, then there's no doubt about who was the greatest athlete of 2016. It was swimmer Katie Ledecky, who dominated the Rio pool like few, except for maybe Phelps and Mark Spitz, had before. That's why it comes as a jaw-to-the-floor shock that Ledecky didn't win FINA's Female Swimmer of the Year, as she had for the previous three years. Yeah, that's right: the top athlete of 2016 couldn't even win the gender-specific award in her own sport.
Katinka Hosszu of Hungary was the winner – you might remember her from the Olympics, which seem like a lifetime ago but actually was still going 110 days ago. The so-called Iron Lady had a tremendous meet, winning four individual medals, three of them gold and shattering a world record in the 400 IM all while her man-bunned, beefed-up, tatted-up husband screamed wildly from the stands and members of the swimming community shot each other curious looks. Hosszu is perhaps the best all-around swimmer in the world but that doesn't make her Ledecky.
The college freshman and (still) teenager won four gold medals (three individual) and a silver, set two individual world records and became the first woman in 48 years to sweep the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle events at the Olympics. Her time in the 800 was almost 10 seconds better than any woman has ever gone in history. She owns the fastest 13 times in history in that race. In the last few laps she looked like Secretariat coming down the home stretch of the Belmont. Her splits in that long-distance race would have won bronze in the 400 – a race she won in another world record. Then, to add the 200 to her program, which is like a marathoner throwing in the 800m just for kicks, and win it is one of the more impressive feats the sport has seen. Hosszu was great. Ledecky was better.
This isn't some pro-America jingoism either. Hosszu had a tremendous but, by Olympics standards, not exceptional meet. Ledecky did something the sport hasn't seen in almost a half-century.
How did it come to this? A point-based formula. Swimmers get a certain amount of points for finishing 1st-12th at the Olympics and World Cup meets (with the Olympic totals being higher given the added importance of the meet) and then various bonuses for breaking world records or finishing ranked in the top-five of a specific event. Hosszu came out on top because she dominated the World Cup events that Ledecky avoids all together. Ledecky's Olympic relay medals (one gold, one silver) don't matter either. Only individual swims are counted.
On one hand, that makes sense. Why should Hosszu be penalized because she swims for a country that only had one other female swimming medalist? On the other hand, Ledecky won two relay golds. She has that hardware. It's part of her haul. Acting like they didn't happen is like vacating wins from college football teams. You can do what you want but everybody saw those wins so ignoring them requires belief in some sort of alternate reality.
Speaking of college, NCAA football proved for years why formulas aren't better than humans. (Say what you will about the ethical conundrum of members of the media voting for awards in various sports, but at least they'd do a better job than a computer.) The BCS was a joke and a punchline. Points-based rankings lead to anomalies, as FINA just discovered.
Why? Way too much focus is paid on World Cup events,. Consider: A first- and fourth-place finish at a World Cup meet, which might have a field that's 20% as good as you'd find at an Olympics, is 120 points, the same amount as a gold in Rio. There are nine World Cup meets. You do the math. Weak field or not, Hosszu still dominated the proceedings, but acting like her sweeping the 100, 200 and 400 IMs and 100 backstroke at those meets is equal to breaking two world records at the Olympics is like saying an NFL team should get a playoff spot based on preseason success.
If FINA wants to encourage swimmers to come to the World Cup meets, fine, but don't act like winning against a weak field is the same as being the top swimmer of the year. Need proof? The men's World Cup points leader, Vladimir Morozov, didn't make a single final in Rio.
But at least the system didn't fail the men's side. Despite his power in the World Cup meets, Morozov, more of a short-course swimming power, wasn't named men's swimmer of the year thanks to his Olympic non-performance. The honor went to some guy named Michael Phelps.