Let’s give Michael Phelps a pass

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.)


  1. griff

    How about we let the tabloids and gossip rags cover this non-story? So he smoked some weed at a college party. Not particularly unusual.

  2. judithk6

    just my 2¢
    I’m so tired of athletes being cast in the part of role model. He’s a star because he’s a world class athlete. If people want to think of him as a role model then it should be for his athletic prowess, not because of the way he lives his life. Even the pope has some skeletons! It’s time that we stopped being shocked by people behaving like people.

    As I understand it the law in the state where the party occurred treat small amounts of marijuana as a misdemeanor. Would he be making as many headlines if he got a ticket for jaywalking? That’s a misdemeanor too.

  3. AustinRanter

    What disturbs me more about this situation is that the S.C. town sheriff is trying to win a gold metal for the most arrest he can make in order to make sure justice is served. Yeah, right. He wants even more to see how many news articles, tv opts, and how much fame he can accrue for the benefit of those future elections.

    What an ass.

    As for the author is this article…I’m so disappointed because Mr. Thomasson is a regularly featured columist who generally is not into doing pychological evaluations. His article looks like some pychobabble analysis about the real maturity level of Phelps is that of a teenager and that Phelps that is somehow a victim of that immaturity. Oh, brother.

  4. Chick

    Now it makes sense!!!!

    The fault is due to a training schedule. Griff implies it isn’t a big deal, so what, get over it. Judithk6 believes children should discern between private lives and athletic accomplishments. AND, we shouldn’t be shocked by people acting like … well, … people. I assume this means anything people do is appropriate. That takes politicians off the hook as well. Finally, AustinRanter (who I really enjoy reading,) says it’s the Sheriff’s fault.

    I’m not shocked that Phelps seemingly did what he is accused of. It won’t change my brand of cereal. But I am bothered that people feel a need to defend him. It appears that ACCOUNTABILITY is an empty word. Is it any wonder we Americans find ourselves in major dilemmas?

  5. tarsierjs

    Personally, I still like Phelps just fine. The article’s writer makes good, tolerant sense with his representation of this “event”.

    And let me add what an old, now late, Arkansan (and four-year player as a football Hawg) wrote: “Throughout our history two strands have coexisted uneasily; a dominant strand of democratic humanism and a lesser but durable strand of intolerant Puritanism. There has been a tendency through the years for reason and moderation to prevail as long as things are going tolerably well or as long as our problems seem clear and finite and manageable. But… when some event or leader of opinion has aroused the people to a state of high emotion, our puritan spirit has tended to break through, leading us to look at the world through the distorting prism of a harsh and angry moralism.” J. William Fulbright

    I’m comfortable applying Fulbright’s comment to many of our current civil, domestic and foreign concerns and, in this circumstance, I’m giving Phelps a pass, too.

    John C