After a summer when the world thought he could do no wrong, Michael Phelps may have made his first major fumble outside of the swimming pool.
This past week, a British tabloid ran a picture of the 14-time Olympic gold medalist taking a bong rip at a University of South Carolina house party. When news spread worldwide, everyone waited anxiously for the hurried sound of endorsement droppings and the 2012 Olympic door closing.
But the repercussions that many were expecting as a result of the controversy have been surprisingly lackluster, with Omega watches and Speedo refusing to revoke their endorsement deals, stating that “Michael Phelps is a valued member of the Speedo team and a great champion. We will do all that we can to support him and his family.” Omega even went as far as to call the scandal “a nonissue.”
And while it’s hard to classify the picture and resulting controversy as meaningless, there is no doubt that the lack of reaction it has warranted is coming from a public that is beginning to view casual drug use, such as marijuana, as an issue that is far more deserving of disappointment than outrage.
Omega and Speedo, Swiss and Australian-based companies respectively, are no doubt keener to chalk up casual drug use as a youth-induced fumble in an otherwise solid career, while Americans are simply desperate to scream outrage. It’s the mistake we consistently find ourselves making with regard to our celebrities; we begin to know them as icons, so we think we know them as people.
This is sure to dampen the all-American image that Phelps has had projected on him — perhaps, to a degree, against his will — but that is simply the result of a public that finds the only thing that it loves more than seeing its celebrities rise, is watching them fall.
We won’t see the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year become the High Times’ cover boy any time soon, nor is it likely that the Olympian’s 12,000-calorie daily diet is comprised of Funyuns and Twinkies — although his gold-medal lung capacity suddenly seems a lot more impressive, all things considered.
But in a world where news of our celebrities being caught for whatever seedy doing is now en vogue has become the commonplace, is Phelps’s drug use really cause for the outrage of a country that has come to expect too much? Marijuana is a performance-hindering drug that only gives further weight to Phelps’s record-breaking gold metal tally. And misguided theories that weed serves as a gateway drug to something larger — perhaps even steroid use — begs the question of whether Phelps’s biggest naysayers are smoking something much stronger altogether.
No, his drug use shouldn’t be completely excused; celebrities of the Internet age should be far more aware by now that any movement, regardless of how innocent or illicit it may be, is sure to be watched, recorded, uploaded, and downloaded by the time their night of debauchery has reached its early-morning end. Someone like Phelps, who has become so much bigger than what he himself may realize, should maybe take that extra second to think before walking into a party where everyone knows his name and acting like a 23-year-old, even if he is one.
But he is 23. And instances like these only further our country’s ability to speak actively and think progressively about marijuana use; our own president himself has admitted to minor drug use in his youthful days, and while his opinion of those days may not have been too high — no pun intended — the point is that at least we’re finally talking about it and that it’s simply not as big a deal anymore.
In the end, Phelps’s drug scandal is sure to fade into the “been-there-done-that” oblivion of current-day celebrity. If the people who have millions of dollars resting on his name are able to look beyond the bong, then we should be able to continue to see him as the Olympic superstar who made America cool again.
It seems that Phelps is even able to swim his way through hot water.