There’s no need to treat sports stars as super-human, says John Leicester, as Michael Phelps gets a three-month suspension for apparently smoking hash
PARIS: So Michael Phelps seemingly puffed a pot pipe on his own time. Bad boy.
It would have been a bigger deal had he illegally used marijuana to help his record-breaking Olympic performance in Beijing last summer — toking on a water pipe to cope with the stress of the Water Cube.
But no, Phelps was stupidly — perhaps venally — photographed out of competition at a party apparently taking a misguided step down a path trampled by at least two U.S. presidents and the Woodstock generation that taught its kids that the Sixties were swinging and that weed, for some, was part of the fun.
Yes, drugs ruin many lives and a South Carolina sheriff is doing his job investigating whether charges are warranted. Phelps escaped with little more than a slap on the wrist from his governing body, USA Swimming. Suspending him from competition for three months still leaves him time to sharpen up for July’s world championships. By then, a lot of this smoke and fire will surely have blown over.
The questions Phelps’ fans and sudden new foes (fair-weather friends?) need to be asking are 1/ Why are they so disappointed? And 2/ Do such errors, however felonious or fragrant the fumes, deserve such a mountain of fuss?
The problem here is not Phelps, but the golden pedestals we build for him and other athletes simply because they swim fast, hit balls out of the park or bend free kicks into goal. By turning sports-people into super-heroes, we’ve set ourselves up for the fall.
Stadiums are more packed than churches. Many spend more on season tickets than they do on giving to charity. Count the number of pages devoted to sports in your newspaper, then count the number for foreign news. Do Manchester United or the LA Lakers really deserve your attention more than Gaza and global warming?
If anyone has a drug problem it’s us, the sports fans addicted to seeing how far the human body can be pushed, especially when it’s not our own.
Of course, it’s preferable if athletes don’t take performance-enhancing drugs or ruin their young bones and sinews by being pushed beyond the limit, ending their careers before they’ve barely begun. Most definitely, it would be better if sportsmen and women had well-rounded personalities and educations as developed as their muscles, and were not thrown into pools as youngsters and told to swim up and down all day.
Buying Phelps-endorsed cereal for kids who would rather have toast means you’re not listening. Breakfast of champions? Rubbish. Drinking the soda doesn’t make you like Mike. Squeezing into the same swimsuit as Phelps won’t get you Olympic gold. But do glance in the mirror. Who looks the fool now?
There’s a compelling case for the argument that our right to judge athletes should extend only as far as the playing field, and that it stops when we leave the stadium. Buying a ticket or pay-to-view entitles you to hope for a good show. But when game-time is up, everyone — including those who have just competed for our viewing pleasure or national pride — should be allowed to go home and get on with their lives. It’s for police and courts to judge them if they commit crimes, just like the rest of us.
Of course, it was a rush watching Phelps chase and complete his great haul of China in August, winning 8 gold medals to break Mark Spitz’s 36-year-old record.
But no one seriously believes that Luke Skywalker continues to fight the forces of evil in a galaxy far, far away after the credits have rolled. So why should we expect sports-people to live anything but human lives, with the errors that humans make, outside of the arena?
Just because their sporting feats are sometimes superhuman doesn’t mean they are, too.