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Taking the Bong

There has been a marked hysteria towards Michael Phelps, caught in flagrante with a bong by eager photographers for the sordid News of the World.  For a person as taken with swimming as Bobby Fischer was with chess, it is almost a relief to see that he could be human, erring even as he wasn’t striving.  But deities and sanctified Übermensch of sport are not entitled to distraction or deviation.

Such figures are seen as reassuring when they are objects of a nation’s obsession, embodying a desire for medals, records and the like.  The moment they look like they might possibly have an avenue for release –  through a bong (a water pipe) in near reach– the capital invested in their status as idols depreciates.  Adulation becomes loathing, and no loathing is so intense as that of spurned adulators.

Happy to cast not merely stones but rocks at Phelps, U.S. swimming officials have now suspended Phelps for his behavior for three months, which begs the question of what the authorities want from this man.  USA Swimming made it clear that they did not want financial support to continue for their dishonoured target, effective on Thursday  February 5).  Their statement is also baffling, with the admission that no anti-doping rule had been violated.  The officials of American swimming had simply “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 took up to him as a role model and as a hero.”

While the suspension is only brief, the consequences are graver. Phelps’ purse will be considerably lightened.  Kellogg’s, archetypical purists of good cardboard eating, have withdrawn their endorsement of Phelps.

Phelps, inevitably, expressed a degree of disorientation from the event. “I’m 23 years old and despite the successes I’ve had I the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me.”

Sports stars, notably prodigies and the naturally gifted, are distorted and disfigured by talents that enable them to perform on the field but poorly off it.  Not that Phelps has ever been seen to be anything but the epitome of tedious goodness outside the pool.  It was almost cruel to see Phelps, like a caged Spartan being, performing circus tricks, barely moving outside the Olympic confines allocated to him.  He had records to break, the mark of Mark Spitz’s world record of seven gold medals to eclipse.

Like Shane Warne of the cricket world, arguably the greatest slow bowler to have ever taken to the wicket, genius disorientates and mangles.  It has one primary purpose: achievement on the field.  The mistake then made by the public and puritan officials is that such genius must translate into a vegetable purity off it.  We would like such figures to be monkish in their habits and pursuits, in effect invisible when outside their sporting guise.  Accord to Phelps’ statement, one even thinks they are not entitled to be “youthful”.  The moment they drink the forbidden juice or succumb to the temptations of the flesh, they materialize as social demons.

The sporting world creates its own standards, its own canons of purity.  That is where they should stay.  Phelps is breaking records more regularly than the books can keep up with them, and he should be lauded for that.  That is, after all, the only thing he can do.  Whatever he does outside the pool is almost beside the point.  If he strays, he should be entitled, within limits, to do so.  As one post on those innumerable blogs on the subject goes: “Let the swimmaa [sic] smoke weed.” And that is the last thing he will be allowed to do.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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