Who needs a distraction?
Having the most medals doesn't make you the best athlete ever.
First, relay medals don't mean much. Any "team" that is just a collection of individual scores measures the depth of talent from that country, not the individuals.
If Phelps swam for Luxembourg, he would have zero relay medals.
At best, they are duplicates of the individual achievements.
So when you throw out the realy medals, he has 11. Still impressive, but not a way to measure greatness.
Phelps was the best short distance swimmer in the world from 2003 to 2008.
There are only two ways to measure "greatness" across sports. How long you dominate the sport, and how dominant you are ( margin of victory ).
5 years is pretty good, but other athletes have done better.
Jordan was 6 or 8 years.
Gretzky was 7 or 8 years.
Armstrong was 7 years.