GORDON WHITE: Tarnished Image: Phelps' Actions Damage Reputation
Gold does not tarnish.
But those who possess the precious metal often display blemishes from their own misconduct.
Too many Olympians have suffered such ignominy. The latest of these disgraced athletes is Michael Phelps, the all-American swimming hero of 2004 and 2008 who set a record by winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics last summer. That gave him 14 gold medals because he won six gold medals and two bronze medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
The 23-year-old Phelps was photographed inhaling from a marijuana pipe. The picture was published a week ago today in the English tabloid newspaper, News of the World. According to the tabloid, the incident took place at a party last November in Columbia, South Carolina, when Phelps was visiting the University of South Carolina.
Thus the lanky Baltimore swimmer becomes the latest Olympian who stood so tall and proud on the victory podium only to have feet of clay.
Marion Jones from North Carolina had to forfeit her five gold medals won in track events at the 2000 Sydney Olympics because she used performance enhancing drugs. Then she was found guilty of perjury during a Federal investigation of athletes using such drugs. She was serving six months in prison when Phelps was winning his eight golds in China.
Ben Johnson of Canada, who set a world record while winning the 100-meter track gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, had to give up both the medal and the world record because he tested positive for doping.
Gary Hall Jr., another swimmer, won four gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Two years later he was banned from the sport for three months after testing positive for marijuana. Hall came back to win a total of six medals in the 2000 Sydney Games and the 2004 Athens Olympics. But, because he was discredited in 1998, he lost all of his commercial endorsements that were worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Phelps has acknowledged his sin and apologized to his fans and the public for acting "in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me."
Nevertheless, Phelps was handed the same penalty Hall received as USA Swimming suspended Phelps for three months until mid May. This includes suspension for three months of the $1,750 per month USA Swimming gives to Phelps.
That is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential losses he can suffer if his sponsors drop him the way the Kellogg Company did, Friday. He could lose millions of dollars.
Kellogg announced it would not renew its sponsorship contract with Phelps when their present agreement expires at the end of this month. Neither Kellogg nor Phelps would say how much money was involved.
But Susanne Norwitz, a spokeswoman for Kellogg said, "Michael's most recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg."
USA Swimming released a statement that said, "We decided to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and hero."
This all comes as no real surprise, particularly since this is not Phelps' first such transgression.
When he was only 19 and shortly after his Athens triumphs, Phelps was arrested in November of 2004 for drunk driving. He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired and a Maryland judge sentenced him to 18 months probation, a $250 fine and ordered him to speak to high school students about the horrors of drinking and driving. He also had to attend meetings of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The tall, slender swimmer who has set just about every record imaginable in the shorter pool distances apparently did not get the message about such misbehavior. His character has to come into question and it will be difficult to trust him to be a credible role model for the youth of America, a position he aspired to.
There are many who defend Phelps as still a young person experiencing youthful indiscretions.
Then there are those, such as myself, who say prominent athletes, actors, politicians, business figures, television personalities et al, no matter what age, who are earning gazillions of dollars because of their celebrity status, owe their public a lot more than an apology every few months. They should behave in such a manner that they never have to apologize for anything while they rake in the buckets of cash.
I was one of many journalists who named Phelps as the 2008 Athlete of the Year. When I wrote my annual review column in The Pilot last December, I acknowledged that Phelps seemed the clear and obvious choice for that recognition, knowing full well about his DUI arrest in 2004.
I know enough about alcoholism and drug use to realize that the first time someone is picked up for DUI or is caught in the act of smoking a marijuana pipe you can bet your bottom dollar neither incident is the first time the person did such a thing.
Most of us are sick and tired of athletes using drugs and driving drunk. Although Phelps is unquestionably the best swimmer in the world today and possibly the best in history, he has to shape up his performance on dry land in order to regain the respect of his fellow Americans.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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