Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.

Phelps, marijuana and the suddenly empty pedestal

My eight-year-old thinks Phelps is the coolest dude ever to walk the earth. With a devotion hitherto only accorded to cricket, soccer and football, he devoured the swim events at the Beijing Olympics this past summer. All his other activities were planned around the swim event schedules. The timing of the Olympics couldn’t have been more apt – my son’s team was on a roller coaster ride of victory and defeat on a weekly basis with the summer league competitions. We encouraged the enthusiasm, calling him down to watch HBO interviews with Phelps and a 60-Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper and Phelps.

This is not to say Phelps is a role model. Yes, when it comes to swimming technique or work ethic in the pool, he is hands-down a parent’s dream example. When my son struggled with his finishes, all we had to do was invoke Phelps’ or Jason Lezak’s example or show him the videos on Youtube and he would get it in a flash. But beyond his exploits in the pool, Phelps did not figure into any of our daily conversations.

For me, the most interesting character in this story was Debbie Phelps, his mother, and to a lesser extent, his sisters, also swimmers of star quality. A single mother, Mrs. Phelps raised three kids while holding down a full-time job, found a good outlet for her son’s formidable energies and guided him to a coach who could recognize his talents and nurture them. Phelps himself has acknowledged repeatedly that whatever his accomplishments are, they are to be attributed to his mother.

My son must have somehow gleaned this. Perhaps my admiration for her came through whenever he heard me talk about her (usually when she was on TV), because the first non-rhetorical question he asked when he learned about Phelps’ tryst with drugs was, “What did his mother say?”


But first came the shock, shock I could see on his face. No, Phelps would never do that. How could he? I can’t believe he did that. Drugs? Why would he take drugs? Which drug was this?

And if you’re wondering about eight-year-olds and what they know about drugs, believe me they know a lot. Each year they have a “Say no to drugs” campaign at school where all the students, even the first-graders, must sign a pledge not to use drugs. Last year was his first year in a public school in the US and I was horrified. I am a subscriber to the “ignorance is bliss” school of thought, but who am I kidding? Whether the school or the parents tell them or not, they know about these things and a lot more. It’s better that they have a credible frame of reference rather than floating around in a vacuum of misinformation.

When he asked what drugs they were, I first pretended I did not hear it. He ranted some more and came back to that question. I hemmed and hawed. Do I tell him that it was just marijuana? That a whole section of this country thinks it’s nuts to have laws against the use of marijuana? That there is a raging debate around the medical use of the drug and its legality? Do I tell him that it’s just a 23-year-old having some fun with kids his own age?

In the end, I copped out, deciding to keep it simple. I said it was a drug I did not know about. But that it was against the law and that the cops were looking into the matter and that he might end up going to jail for it.

Now his face crumpled. He knew Phelps’ training for the World Championships in Rome was set to begin any time. Then came the line I was completely unprepared to hear. Where did he even get it? So Godfatheresque. “He has brought real dishonor to his family!”

I turned my face away. I had to stifle the giggle that was threatening to bubble up. My baby! Talking such grown up words! Oh lord! I quickly changed the topic and got him busy with prepping the table for dinner.

But he came back to it again, later in the night. It really bothered him. He was trying to reconcile the image of the super-successful swimmer with the guy who did something stupid, something he should have known never to do, that might lead to him not swimming. I just let him talk and we agreed that it was the stupidest thing to do, that his mother must be feeling bad. Where is his dad, he asked at one point. And I told him what little I knew.

There is a strain of opinion that opposes letting Phelps off scot-free. So what if he’s the best swimmer in history, asks The Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon. Let a kid be a kid, says Kathleen Parker.

As for me, the idea that celebrities should be role models just took another hit, an idea I was leery about already. Why should sports stars and film stars and politicians be role models? I say this not only from the perspective of where our children should source their models from, but also from the perspective of the celebrities. Why should they be forced to put on a persona and behave well in public just because they are famous? There was a big brouhaha about Tiger Woods and Charles Barkley are few years ago. So what if Tiger Woods said the F word when his golf ball sailed clear of the grass and landed in the Pacific Ocean? So what if Charles Barkley behaves badly off court? Why do we celebrate them when they accomplish nearly inhuman things but bring them down the minute they show us they are human? Why are they in charge of teaching our children what is right and what is wrong? Sure we could emulate so-and-so’s work ethic or so-and-so’s volunteer work, but their lives as a whole are not for our children to copy.

In fact, these episodes, however distasteful they may be, are great life lessons about actions and their consequences. Celebrities’ lives are exemplary when they’re actually human.

That being said, I do hope there’s some good news about Phelps soon.



This entry was posted on February 22, 2009 by in Blog, Personal Essays and tagged , , , .
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