“So, what now for this latest dopey Olympian?” asked a headline in today’s Daily Mail, referring to American swimmer Michael Phelps’ bong-sucking faux pas. Phelps, who holds the record for the most gold medals won at a single Olympics (eight in Beijing) and the most ever golds won by an Olympian (fourteen), was photographed nursing a bong while out partying. He was not suspended over the issue as marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug, but his PR machine tried their utmost to stop the story going public.
When you’ve been covered in Olympic glory and deified as a sporting god, your life as you know it stops. You enjoy the attention of sponsors and dignitaries and your brand stands for something. The hours of practice and dedication to your sport are vindicated and even the bullying you’ve received for not quite fitting in pales into insignificance because you are become a ‘special one’. You reap the fruits of the harvest. But you are no longer just a bloke on the street who can go about your daily life like almost everyone else can. Sooner or later your ‘behaviour’ becomes a point of media interest.
So Michael Phelps’ partying and bong-sucking is not just media intrusion, it’s actual news and a severe attack on the Olympian brand he has swum into. A person in Phelps’ position can’t expect their PR minders to be able to do deals on their behalf for every indiscretion; they are now headline news and something like this is always likely to slip through into the public arena. The lesson to be learned here is that, if you want to plunder your brand, you have to consider either living a rigorously monastic life or, in an attempt at normality, consider exploiting a bad boy image.
The pressures of success are often greater than the bitter taste of fame in the sporting arena; the monastic life is unlikely to suit Phelps, but the bad boy image is thoroughly unlikely to further his ability to take advantage of his Olympian fame. He’s drowning, whichever lane he chooses to swim in.