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Published:February 6th, 2009 10:45 EST
Olympian`s Integrity in Peril as Controversial Photos are Uncovered

Olympian`s Integrity in Peril as Controversial Photos are Uncovered

By Christopher HIllenbrand

Like most Americans, I watched the Beijing Olympics and rooted for the American Olympians in each sport popular enough "for drawing ideal television ratings worldwide." (Though I must say, only popinjay elitists could`ve found enjoyment in the tedious coverage on rowing.) And like most Americans, I hadn`t paid much attention to the last two summer Olympiads, so I didn`t know what the hubbub was, over the 22-year-old from Baltimore. But I listened to the stories on the two-time Olympic veteran from the University of Michigan, and how he`d been tearing up the collegiate swimming circuit as much as countless breakfast spreads in Ann Arbor. I`ll be the first to admit that the story of the loner with disabilities was inspired straight from the American creed. He`d been diagnosed with a learning disability and attention deficit hyperactive disorder since he was a child and was harassed by kids for his impediments. He gravitated towards swimming as an outlet to focus his energy, and had shown a phenomenal gift even as a youngster.

Olympian Michael Phelps


Then, this someone I had never heard of a month earlier was suddenly being catapulted into pantheon of the greatest Olympians to have competed. With an eighth gold medal around his neck, Phelps looked forward to a million dollar bonus from Speedo for breaking Mark Spitz` record having won, by one, the most gold medals in one Olympiad for swimming, with eight. Within one short action-packed month, Michael Phelps became a household name.


His mother and sisters were fixtures of the swimming meets just as much as Phelps, his teammates, or his opponents were. By the end of the Olympiad, I, and the rest of the world, could recount Michael`s life story for him should he have forgotten any details. Every time his name came up, there was yet another attention-seeker from Michael`s past to talk about him as the talented swimmer they "always knew would amount to greatness": especially his childhood coach. Even if the coach was planning on putting out a book about his protégée, the spin doctors in the pulp shilling business beat him to the punch.


Every day there was talk about another company trying to roll the armored trucks up to Phelps` front door for him to endorse their pricy junk. Then it was declared Phelps was the new Wheaties spokesperson and the Athlete of the Year depicted on their cereal boxes. Good for him, I thought: he deserved it after obliterating his competition some of whom by lengths, not of inches, but of meters. Michael Phelps was, after all, the unequivocal choice as the Athlete of the Year; and, seemingly a standup man slightly younger than I am.

Was it the money getting to his ego, or should I say the deluge of more-- considering he was already a good sport at hocking wares? Money does pay itself back, though, through social criticism and a lack of privacy. But affording the luxury of having anything and going anywhere is certainly a stress relief: well it`s always been the foregone conclusion, especially for this writer.


I don`t know but I guess the stress was too much, come November, when he took a hit off a communal bong at a USC fraternity party. Though the eyes of the world reverted back to everyday life and the lights let him be, he acted completely contrary to his public persona. With a posse of PR-savvy benefactors around him, including a mother and sisters who are college-educated and more worldly-wise, shouldn`t he have had the moral reinforcements in case his own failed him? Even if he considered the deed just a private toke between bros whose lips were zipped, he`s had eight years in his profession to learn how to gauge his actions and act appropriately. And were he and his coterie blind to the fact that everything he does is scrutinized under the media`s microscope? Everyone concerned dropped the ball, and Phelps, disabilities and all, still should have known better.


Okay, Phelps has received flack for his gaffe but what no one has mentioned and addressed is the excuse disadvantaged youth will now draw as a reason to use drugs: well Michael Phelps won 14 gold medals and he had a learning disability, too, and smoked weed, so can I! Some contemptible journalists might go to the length of saying that the picture show of his youth was a farce and that his drug use accounted for his challenges: Fox News would be the first I`d expect to expose that outlandish angle! But what else can I expect except less than holy behavior from public figures in an age where nothing is sacred anymore. Why can`t we be liberal and progressive with a sound moral compass because I know that isn`t too much to ask?


So who, exactly, should young people out there be emulating when it seems like every star athlete these days is guilty of breaking the law? Maybe idolizing athletes has finally run its course and praise will finally be deferred to those who truly deserve it: academics and those actually try to change the world for the better.