Pubdate: Sun, 8 Feb 2009
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: David Walsh
Referenced: The News of the World article and photo


Pictures of the US Olympic Hero Smoking Pot Should Be Viewed As a Positive Sign

I SPENT time in the pleasant company of a gentleman last week; a 
white-haired, young looking 73-year-old grandfather who has managed 
to do what intelligent people invariably do: that is, he has kept his 
mind open. Let us call him David, because that is his name. In the 
midst of our conversation, the subject of Michael Phelps surfaced. 
"The news," he said of the swimmer being photographed smoking 
marijuana from a bong, "was a great tragedy." Mindful of his 
seniority, it was with some reluctance that I questioned his 
conclusion. "Do you really mean tragedy? If you do, it shows that you 
haven't been father to teenage boys or young men for some time." He 
was surprised to be told that so many of today's teenagers and young 
men use pot. He found the news mildly shocking.

I smiled and thought of the opening lines to the Kris Kristofferson 
song, Blame it on the Stones. "Mister Marvin Middle Class is really 
in a stew/ Wond'rin' what the younger generation's coming to/And the 
taste of his Martini doesn't please his bitter tongue/Blame it on the 
Rolling Stones."

David, it should be said, was far from bitter. Yet there was the 
sense of an older gentleman wondering about the younger generation. 
What I loved was the wondrous innocence. Through the four hours we 
had shared, David had smoked many cigarettes. And as weird as it may 
seem, this is the question that struck me.

If David was my father and Michael Phelps was my son, for whom would 
I have the greater anxiety? It's not a question that needs much 
consideration. "Pops, those things will shorten your life. Keep on 
smoking them and there will be a tragedy." To Phelps, I would say: 
"It's not the best way to socialise but I can understand why you 
experiment." A lot of the time in life, you need to do the wrong 
thing to know the right thing. This is especially true for the young.

The shame of Phelps' story came not in the act but in Marvin Middle 
Class getting in a stew. There was a sentence in a newspaper column 
that said: "Phelps has added his name to a long list of rich, 
arrogant, dimwitted celebrity jocks who can't live up to their hype." 
The remarkable thing about that observation is that the author was 
earning his living while making it. That's ingenious.

There wasn't much that was admirable in the efforts of the PR 
company, Octagon, to prostitute Phelps' column-writing talents in 
return for the safe burial of the offending photograph. Three years 
of free swimming columns for one juicy photograph? If you're the 
editor of the the News of the World, that isn't much of a choice.

I laughed too when reading the comment of the Olympic swimmer 
eclipsed by Phelps: "I feel badly for Michael and the situation he 
has put himself in," said Mark Spitz. The situation he has put 
himself in? For God's sake, the guy inhaled a little pot. So too did 
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Does Spitz feel bad for them or does 
he save his sanctimony for swimmers who win more Olympic gold medals 
than he did? What made Phelps so engaging during his eight-gold-medal 
miracle in Beijing was the sense that it was achieved by a human 
being, albeit one with a physique almost freakishly suitable for 
elite level swimming. You only had to listen to him to hear the 
ordinariness and the humanity.

He was the kid who suffered from ADHD (Attention Deficit 
Hyperactivity Disorder) and who used swimming to wean himself off the 
medication prescribed by doctors and presumed to be lifelong. So much 
time was spent swimming that Phelps didn't have any difficulties with 
hyperactivity out of the water. What was always an admirable pursuit 
was made heroic by Phelps' extraordinary talent and his 
hypersensitive feel for water.

Our feeling for what he achieved was heightened by the perception of 
his humanity. It made his achievement believable and in today's world 
of sport, that matters. Phelps' agent, Drew Johnson, offered the 
usual PR spiel last week when promising that, "Michael intends to 
work to regain everyone's trust". Of course, it's hard for an agent 
when a story threatens his client's commercial value but the point 
about the bong story is that it confirmed our trust in Phelps' 
humanity. He really is the young man he seemed to be in Beijing.

As for my new friend David, he told me he's going to keep a closer 
eye on his grandkids from now on. The trick, I suggested, was to be 
there but not watching too closely. 
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