Does anyone remember Eleanor Holm?
If you don’t, it is understandable. But with half the world seemingly concerned about Michael Phelps, it seems appropriate to recall the stunning, blonde 100-meter backstroke champion of the 1932 Olympics whose consumption of a few glasses of champagne and late night dice playing with sportswriters in 1936 cost her a repeat of her earlier gold medal triumph.
On the boat over to the Berlin games, Holm ran afoul of Avery Brundage, the strait-laced, sanctimonious U.S. Olympic czar whose unrealistic defense of amateur standing probably cost U. S. athletes more victories over the years than any other single thing. He saw Holm as a threat to his ideals of how an athlete should act in or out of competition and kicked her off the team, sacrificing her to his own ideals about personal behavior.
There have been arguments over the years as to how much champagne the beauteous swimming star, who was later to become the wife of legendary showman Billy Rose and a movie and aquacade celebrity, actually consumed. A doctor on the boat charged she was suffering from acute alcohol poisoning. Holm vigorously disputed that, saying she had drunk only a couple of glasses during a toast to the team. Nevertheless, she sat helplessly in the stands as a Dutch swimmer won the event she was an odds-on favorite to capture a second time.
While the circumstances of her infamy are quite different than Phelps’ or those who have violated strict anti-doping rules, Holm felt the pain of public scorn up until her death at age 91 in 2004. She always thought she had been a victim of selective standards and punished far too drastically by a self-appointed moral arbiter. Her critics argued she had violated the rules and had cost the U.S. an important gold medal.
Phelps, of course, is a victim of modern technology that prevents any sort of privacy and of his own arrested development brought on by the enormous rigors and pressures of a sport that requires total dedication without deviation. The enormity of his accomplishments has come at the sacrifice of much of his childhood, leaving him woefully short of the social skills, experience and maturity that would protect him. He is still a teen-ager in terms of development. His picking up a marijuana pipe at a fraternity party and an earlier DUI arrest would be no big thing for most his age. But as a role model for millions of others, he is held to a different standard, fairly or unfairly.
Never mind that he has never tested positive for any drug nor exhibited behavior that like Holm would keep him out of the competition. Never mind that he has spent so much time in the water that when he is on dry land he hardly knows how to act. His fans, at least some of them, and the corporations whose products he endorses expect him to be superhuman in every aspect and not to succumb to the normal temptations of youngsters his age. Why, you say, he is after all 23 and should know better.
Right. If he hadn’t spent up to eight hours a day in the water and the rest of the time eating, studying and sleeping, year after year since he was a mere baby. As the father of a more than just fair "year-round" competitive swimmer, I personally can attest to what it does to youngsters not to mention fathers and mothers who must have nearly as much dedication. Most, like my son, decided it wasn’t worth what it would take and he sought an outlet in less time-demanding sports. In other words, he wanted to enjoy his boyhood.
Like Holm who wanted not to have to go to bed at 9 o’clock and to enjoy a glass or two of champagne, Phelps finally wanted to act like a human being instead of an automaton. So before casting that stone, wouldn’t it be better to try to understand what is required to get where he is and how much it cost. Would you do it?
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)