Michael Phelps: Downfall of an American hero
Advice to Americans at the breakfast table today. Consider saving your cereal packet if it bears the heroic, wide-smile features of the multi-gold Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Packets like that will soon be in short supply and may become collectors' items.
The dust has begun to settle after the publication last weekend of a photograph showing the super-athlete apparently inhaling marijuana smoke through a bong.
Things are not quite as grand for Phelps as they were before, but they may not be so terrible either. The American swimming federation has slapped his wrist. More hurtfully, perhaps, Tony the Tiger has cut him loose.
It was not just Frosted Flakes packets that have been festooned with Phelps and his medals since the August games. He was also very big on packets of Corn Flakes. But, on Thursday, the makers of the brands, Kelloggs, decided that Phelps was not the recipe he once was for all-American wholesomeness. They dumped him with a terse statement saying that the young man "was not consistent with the image" of the company.
Part of the joy of his prowess in Beijing – a record number of eight gold medals, surpassing the seven-gold record previously held by fellow swimmer Mark Spitz – was the splash of sponsorship and endorsement deals that came afterwards. By some estimates, they were together worth $100m (£68m).
Kelloggs pulling out is a blow but is not massive. His contract was due to run out at the end of February anyway and the company is simply saying it will not be renewed. Several other sponsors announced this week that they are standing by him for now, including Omega and Speedo.
But by the week's end, Phelps had also suffered the embarrassment of a telling off from his peers. USA Swimming, the federation that governs the sport in the US, suspended him from competition for three months and cut off all financial support to him for the same period. Smoking marijuana does not fall into the category of drugs banned for reasons of performance enhancement but it does come, apparently, into the category of drugs that could degrade the image of swimming as the cleanest and shiniest of sports.
Phelps has apologised to the federation and in interviews in his home town of Baltimore where he was staying with his mother, a school teacher, and two sisters. The events of recent days seem to have shaken his own confidence in where he goes next, up to and including questioning whether he is really committed to competing at the London Olympics in 2012.
"This is a decision of mine that I'm not going to make today and I'm not going to make tomorrow," he told The Baltimore Sun when asked about 2012. "If I decide to walk away, I'll decide to walk away on my own terms. If it's now, if it's four years, who knows? But it is something I need to think about and decide what I want to do."
A decision indeed to forgo the next Olympics would be a deep disappointment to his fans and to the organisers in London. USA Swimming, though expressing disappointment, is not doing anything seriously to impede Phelps going forward to win even more medals. The ban will end in good time to allow him to compete in this year's US Championships on 7 July and the World Championships in Rome two weeks later.
But the federation, based in Colorado, was not about to do nothing. "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 a hero," it said.
The withholding of financial support from Phelps is little more than symbolic, however. The Federation's stipend to help with training costs amounts to only $1,750 a month. And Phelps has been generous in expressing his contrition. "I clearly made a mistake," he told the Sun while denying he used marijuana regularly. "This was stupid, and I know this won't happen again."
And there were encouraging words to the Sun from Phelps' trainer, Bob Bowman. "I think it sends a message to Michael, and we're certainly going to abide by it. He's eager to be back in training, and looking to move forward."
If the scandal begins now to subside, debate about how large a sin he committed may not. He is not the first sports icon to be tarnished by revelations of drug use. Nor is it lost on anyone that his drug of choice was not the kind that boosts performance. Filling your lungs with marijuana may help in the giggle Olympics but not in regular competition. (Never mind the middle word of the Olympics motto, 'Swifter, Higher, Stronger".) "God forbid he hit a bong," noted the actor Ashton Kutcher in comments broadcast on Twitter. "Ask your 22-year-old kid what they did last weekend". And there were multiple expressions of sympathy, including from Spitz. "As strictly a fan, I feel badly for Michael and the situation he has put himself in," he said.
The photograph published by the News of the World last Sunday was apparently taken while Phelps attended a campus party at the University of South Carolina last November. It wasn't the first time that he has found himself in trouble: after competing in the 2004 Olympics he was stopped for drunk driving, an infraction that was largely forgiven and forgotten because of his youth.