Monday, May 18, 2009

Michael Phelps "Shamed"...not in my book!

Over the last few days there have been a lot of reports in the news of “shamed” and “disgraced’ swimmer Michael Phelp’s return to the pool at a meet in North Carolina.

Now I don’t usually watch a lot of television...and to be honest I have been watching the news less and less over the years. Let’s face it – the context is so negative. I guess we need and want to know, on a primal level what constitutes a threat to us, but like many things that are imperative to survival (like the stress response and eating) this is an urge we now take to the extreme.
This particular issue makes me laugh...

One report last night showed a ‘staunch supporter’ of Michael Phelps on the brink of tears, with her young daughter in tow, proclaiming that “we all make mistakes” and that “everyone deserves a second chance.” And while I congratulate her spirit of forgiveness, my question is “why do we need to forgive Michael Phelps?” The guy has done NOTHING wrong!

OK...he did break the law. That’s a given, and yes he also went outside the rules of the sport he is involved in, one in which, in line with IOC regulations prohibits the use of marijuana. BUT my question is more of a pragmatic than a pedantic one.
Michael Phelps was photographed doing something that over ½ of us admit to have done (the total usage figures could be much higher), that many people do regularly, and that in the opinions of many medical and health experts poses little if any risk to long term health. Now I am not talking about extreme use here – the debates on the merits or risks of heavy marijuana use can be debated until the cows come home, and I am not in favour of indiscriminate use or abuse of ANY substance (including caffeine, sugar or anything else for that matter.)
But occasional use of marijuana (in this humble mans opinion) is no more dangerous than the occasional beer or wine, both of which are legal, socially engrained and in many sporting cultures, tacitly approved.

So of course he was censured – that is the obvious course of action when someone has transgressed against the laws of the nation and the laws of the sport (although of course no criminal charges were brought or are going to be.) That much I can understand.

But has he been shamed? Has he been disgraced?
Not in my book.

The reality is that Michael Phelps is one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known. He succeeded in the hardest forum of competition in his sport over and over again and at the end of the day after beating the best the world had to throw at him he relaxed with a bong, took a big toke and no doubt relaxed and thought “Job well done!”
Something men across the world are doing after a hard day’s work in the same way...or with a can of beer.

A more interesting topic is perhaps whether he also smoked pot at times in his lead up to the games, or in the years previous? If he had it begs the question: “Does pot really affect motivation and physical and mental performance?”

Some of you reading this might say “Well if he hadn’t smoked pot he could have been even better!” And of course that might be true – I doubt it, but in any instance the answer is something we’ll never know. But many of his staunchest critics in the aftermath have not excelled to anywhere near the degree that he has – so what’s their excuse?

I personally know many, many elite level athletes who use marijuana occasionally as a means of relaxation (without the hangover and systemic effects of alcohol) as well as leaders of industry, media personalities, celebrities, and entrepreneurs of great success who also imbibe from time to time.

I guess Michael Phelps has joined the ranks of the elite who have admitted to, or been found to have smoked pot including US Presidents, even if they can’t figure out how to inhale! (on a side note I wonder about the ability of a man to run the most powerful country in the world if he can’t even figure out how to smoke a joint properly!), musicians (Louis Armstrong, the Beatles to name a few) as well as the revered martial artist Bruce Lee, and most influential bodybuilder...and now leader of the world’s 5th largest economy...that’s right, the Governator himself – Arnold Schwarzenegger!

After all that....Is pot still illegal?!!....


  1. An interesting entry on the blog.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the fact that the news media seem to sensationalise and accentuate the negative. I tend to sift through the news and skim the surface for a few facts.

    I have a strong aversion the celebrity culture and tend to tune out when events concerning those deemed to be a celebrity attain notoriety due to some action they have undertaken and been caught out doing.

    Had it not been for this blog entry, then I would not have given Michael Phelps a second thought – I am not an avid sports follower anyway. Herein lies a rub... paying heed to the stories the media propagate just fuels the story and keeps it going longer, what better way to gain publicity than to be discovered doing something perceived as negative or wrong but newsworthy by the media.
    Those who achieve greatness in the sporting arena acquire a following – they have after all worked long and hard to achieve something real. Many follow them as role models not because of their achievement, rather it is because of the underlying dedication that has led to the success. They also embody health and wellbeing. Young aspiring athletes look to them and if they see that it is OK to have the odd reefer it could be the start of a slide into addiction – it is an addictive substance after. Had Phelps been involved in taking a proven and banned sport enhancing substance then I would consider him to be more seriously in error. The fact that he has erred on the other side of the law opens up for questioning as to just where he draws the line, for those who wish to pursue that line of questioning.
    Marijuana is still illegal in many countries, including New Zealand where it is a controlled substance and therefore a crime to be in possession of or deal in. Whatever our opinions on whether that is right or wrong, the law is still the law and if you are caught breaking it then you have have to face the consequences of your choice to do so.
    I believe that to be a good role model, then you need to strive to be within the laws of your land and if you are at odds with certain laws set about getting the law changed. Laws do need to change and evolve as times do change... however with substances and the possibility of addiction I believe strongly that the law has to err on the side of prevention.
    I am not a drinker either as you well know and while it is an ingrained element of our society, it does not necessarily make it right. The costs to society of where alcohol goes wrong are vast, as are those associated with cigarette smoking. I would also beg to differ that smoking pot is not harmful, it is after all, introducing pollutants directly to the lung, and I would ask how easy it is to undertake large scale clinical studies when the substance is mostly on the wrong side of the law. Pot is not the best thing for brain cells, there is evidence indicative of that.
    I do agree that there is appropriate therapeutic situations whereby cannabinoids are valid - but there is a legal framework in existence to allow that to occur - not an easy route, but then I don't think it should be. A line has been drawn and it is there for many reasons – with someone like Phelps I would have to ask why there is a need for a chemical in order to be able to relax - there are so many other ways to relax... meditation for one or go out and celebrate a tremendous achievement. I don't take this incident or exposure as damning of his sporting excellence. Yes he has proven he is human, but when you strive so hard for excellence should that not roll into other aspects of your life?
    As health advocates, do we not have to strive to be the best we can be, stay on the right side of the laws in existence of the day, strive to make the laws better where we see an alternate way that does not cause harm, seek to help others to aspire to similar goals, and minimise reliance on chemicals to alter mood?

  2. Thanks for your comments Mujahid. I was hoping that this post would start some discussion and it obviously has!

    I too have an aversion to celebrity culture. I don't really need to know what Paris Hilton was wearing last night or what Lindsay Lohan was up to after leaving the club....
    I'm sure they're lovely people but I've got better things to do with my precious time than spend it worrying about these trivialities!

    The reason I felt compelled to comment was exactly for that reason. I think Michael Phelps smoking a bowl a complete non-issue.

    I agree that there are consequences for breaking the law. And anyone who breaks the law does need to be aware that they may be caught and they may have to face the consequences. I think if you are prepared to deal with those consequences then it is up to you if you want to engage in 'social disobedience'.

    In this case I think that the law is an ass!

    I do not believe that government spending of billions of dollars on the war on cannabis is justified.
    Just as alcohol prohibition didn't work and simply put money into the hands of gangsters - marijuana prohibition is doing the same thing.

    I agree that pot use is not without harm and not without danger but I think also it is a matter of degrees. Alcohol and tobacco are far more harmful and are legal. If someone chooses to have a quiet beer or glass of wine why shouldn't someone be afforded the same right with a different drug of choice?

    I certainly don't agree that if pot were legal it would be more of a problem. The vast majority of people have tried cannabis anyway and those that choose to smoke would not, in my opinion, smoke more if it were legal and those who abuse it would still do so legal or not.

    As you know I am a meditator and a spiritualist. I agree that there are fantastic ways to relax and unwind that don't involve drugs. But if we are looking at it from a purely neurochemical and neurophysiological bent then we must admit that what is felt, perceived, seen and experienced when under the influence of a substance has an effect on the neurophysiology and chemistry in the brain and IF that provides an insight into life and the human condition it MAY be beneficial.

    Marijuana has been used for thousands of years for religious and spiritual purposes as have many other plants. I guess it is intention that is important here. Most people use drugs to escape - but some use them to learn and grow. It is all chemical! Food has drug like effects, herbs and spices affect us deeply and promote neuro and gross physiological changes too, as does exercise and various environmental stimuli. So what constitutes a 'drug'?...

    I will say this I DO NOT condone the use of any drug. Nor do I think that people can use substances of any sort in a laissez fair manner without consequences. But neither do I condemn people for occasional and minimal use. We are human with human failings..but even more we are humans seeking some insight into the wonder of the world around us. We exist in a world of energy, vibrations and chemical stimuli that affects us and sometimes some amongst us may use those to gain insights. Shaman have been doing it for thousands of years.

    Do you think that to err is human and to 'grow' divine? And if so does the 'growth' outweigh the effects of erring?

    Thanks again Mujahid - it's nice to have the wheels of the brain turning!