Thursday, February 5, 2009

Well Now

No sooner did I post this then this was revealed. I'm sure everyone has heard about it. Of course we get the predictable malarkey like this and this. Our athletic heroes have let us down? Really? Even before activating my Wonder Twin Powers of Reading Comprehension, I understood the references to the collective "Our" - the figurative national "Us" - but it didn't stop my knee from jerking. Let "Us" down how? You're telling me some 21-year-old swimmer is supposed to be The Paragon of Moral Virtue<trumpets sound>? Yeah, Phelps' Olympic accomplishments were staggering, and we can point to him with pride as an example of athletic skill, but we're not talking Dali Lahma here. "Our" expectations of this man beyond the pool point to a very serious fundamental problem.

What is a hero? Merriam-Webster says:
he·ro \ˈhir-(ˌ)ō\ noun
1 a: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability b: an illustrious warrior c: a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d: one that shows great courage
OK, lets review:
- Endowed with great strength or ability? Check.
- Admired for his achievements? Check.
- Shows great courage? Check.
Hmm, we just might have a hero on our hands. Wait now, there are other qualities to consider:
- Divine decent? Certainly not.
- Mythological or legendary? Uh, no.
- Illustrious warrior? That would be stretching things.
- Noble qualities? Yeah,maybe.
I don't read anything about perfect, infallible, or keeper of the national standard. You see, the "expectations" for celebrities and athletes has become the same as with politicians. Nothing short of some divine, squeaky-clean Donny-and-Marie-type creature can occupy our public space, as if to say that the people we choose to represent us are actually Heaven-sent. That goes for the people who play football, baseball, or ride bikes, or anyone on TV. How backward and deluded is that?

Try this one on for size: Micheal Phelps wants to be normal. When I was a kid, I had the good sense to choose my heroes from the non-existent and the dead. Only comic book characters have super powers, and dead men don't make mistakes, hence they never let me down. I never counted on my heroes, nor did I model my behavior after them. For instance, Hemmingway was one of my favorite writers, and JFK was one of my favorite statesmen. You see what I'm getting at? Heroes can guide you to what is possible, but not how to live your life, because heroes are - first and foremost - tragic characters.

I can only imagine the hell that must have been Phelps' world: dogged by the press and marketeers. Agents and coaches. Endless training and interviews and sycophants. And at only 18. His life was the pool. Sequestered. I bet all that taken together can make one quite anti-social. So then he achieves what no other has at 21, and what next? I'll just bet he longed to try all those things he'd heard about, but never got to experience. All the fun of being a young man: parties and a girlfriend and the freedom to explore. To be anonymous. Unfortunately it was too late, and he'd already been twisted into a spokes-model. How sick.

Phelps certainly didn't let me down. If anything he lifted me up. He showed me that he's human after all. And he acted in a way I would expect any kid with a brain (and feelings) to act who'd been swept up by marketing machines and the world press. He rebelled. And I think the only thing he's sorry about was trusting the people he was with. That will certainly never happen again.

I don't think any less of Micheal for this either. I do, however, harbor an enormous disdain for the jerk who took his picture. I can see it now: "DUDEZ!! Check out the snaps of Phelps doin' bingers my room!" That person should have known what would happen when that picture got out. But our obsession with money and celebrity knows no bounds; and good sense and discretion isn't part of growing up any more. Why should Michael be held to a different standard just because he swims well?

So now Phelps has lost his sport and his income, and may have to face the police (apparently Kellogg's doesn't market to human beings, and South Carolina can't resist a cheap headline). That's supposed to be a tragedy. I say: fly Michael, be free.

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