Author: Amy Withey
Last weekend, a picture of Michael Phelps smoking marijuana from a bong at a University of South Carolina party was printed in the British newspaper “News of the World.” The article appeared to be factually deficient, inflammatory, and clearly self-serving for the paper’s own financial gain.
To his credit, Phelps took immediate responsibility and admitted to the photo’s authenticity, stating he regretted what had happened.
The photo was taken on Nov. 6th, 2008, three months after his victories in Beijing. Phelps was not actively training at this time. The “regrettable” incident will have no effect on the medals that he already won, but his numerous financial endorsements could be in jeopardy. It is understandable that his endorsers are embarrassed about what happened.
While I cannot argue against the fact that Phelps did, by his own confession, commit an illegal act, I think Phelps’ case has raised several good points about the oxymoronic ethics of journalism and the accompanying court of public opinion. First of all, who cares if Michael Phelps smoked pot three months after his Olympic victories? Thousands of students all over the country engage in similar activities and get away with it precisely because they are not prominent figures in the media. Phelps was singled out and smeared simply to sell newspapers. Period.
The only interest this kind of sloppy, sensationalistic, tabloid-style journalism serves is the self-interest of the reporter and the newspaper’s profits. Finally, Phelps has taken 1,500 drug tests and never failed one. He is strategic enough to not let his personal choices interfere with his training. The fact that he smoked pot on Nov. 6th does not change the fact that he is arguably the greatest Olympic athlete to ever grace the sport of swimming. And he did it clean.
Unfortunately, his extraordinary success in Beijing has spawned unfair expectations from people all over the world who want to believe that he is perfect: a superhero that is more of an ideal than an actual person. The pressure is intense, unrelenting and undue. He may have set himself above all others in the pool, but on dry land Phelps is just another 23 year-old college student trying to find his way.
I’m sure Phelps will learn from this experience, as well he should. He has much to learn about privacy and discretion and who he can trust. His newly minted celebrity status will take time to grow into, and he will commit blunders along the way. But I do not think this incident, in any way, diminishes his amazing accomplishments in the pool. Just the opposite: it proves that a mere mortal can sometimes accomplish miraculous things. So keep your head up and keep swimming, Michael.
Amy Withers is a junior ECLS major. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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