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Monday, February 02, 2009

What I Think About Michael Phelps

I've tried to keep out of the whole Michael Phelps thing, but it's been bouncing around my head and I need to get it out.


There are an awful lot of pundits out there wondering what the big deal is.  They fail to understand how so-called "Olympic" sports are fundamentally different than more mercenary "professional" sports.


Michael Phelps' fame was based on his image of an athlete's single-minded pursuit of success taken to the nth degree, and in a sport where performance and health are closely related if not inseparable.  Whether or not it is accurate is not the point; it's what has driven his ability to make a very good living.  In his sport, the image is everything; he does not fill stadia like Babe Ruth did, nor does he drive TV ratings that directly contribute to his salary like Alex Rodriguez does.  He is paid by advertisers, because they are interested in attaching themselves to a positive image.  And, as they say, those who live by the sword shall die by the sword—so if his image is what made him rich, it will also hold him to an impossibly high standard.  In sports like swimming and gymnastics, you can't take one without the other. 


I think the brouhaha related to just that, an image of Phelps hitting the bong.  Had we merely read about it, things would be different.  There are other minor issues, such as the fact that cannabis is a banned substance under the WADA code, but only a very small minority of people know that.  I wonder if smoking, rather than ingesting in some other manner, is part of the issue, but I doubt it.  And then there's his 2004 DUI arrest (at which time he was underage), which most people had forgotten but have now been reminded, contributing to a sense that this guy is a hypocrite.  He's not, but again, the people who wrote the checks made him out to be some kind of superhero, and that's pretty much all we've seen of him.  And had we seen, say, a video of him failing a field sobriety test in 2004, he likely would have spent a good deal of time in the media doghouse. 


The real issue is that the photo makes him look like one of the pothead losers in Knocked Up.  There is no shortage of these kinds of guys; go around any college town and the place is littered with them.  Thus, we get to the heart of it all; Phelps won 16 Olympic medals by the time he was 22.  He is probably now past his peak, at an age when athletes in almost every other sport are years away from theirs.  They get to mature and become responsible before they're ready for a Hall of Fame, but not Phelps.


Think about what a dumbass you were at 23, and then think about your entire financial future riding on keeping your once-in-a-blue-moon goofups a secret.  Does it make you glad you're an ordinary Joe?  It does for me.

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