Up in Smoke?

Suspended by his team, dropped by Kellogg—why should Michael Phelps' career sink just because he was caught inhaling a little bong water? Mike Edison, former publisher of High Times, on marijuana's new golden boy.

News of the World

George W. Bush never had to answer for his “youthful indiscretions.” Michael Phelps, not so lucky.

Having been caught red-handed with a smoking bong firmly pasted to his maw, the long knives are out for the Olympic hero.

Let’s see if I've got this right. Phelps isn’t a future Hall of Famer juicing himself with the “cream” and the “clear,” or getting his gluteus maximus pin-cushioned with designer ’roids. He isn’t a doped racehorse, or a testosterone-shooting bike nerd trying to turn his Lycra-Spandexed bum into a blur pedaling across France.

Even the current president of the United States freely admits to having toked his share of tropical trumpets back in his Hawaiian hoodlum days.

He isn’t even the current president of the United States, who freely admits to having toked his share of tropical trumpets back in his Hawaiian hoodlum days, not to mention tooting some of the Big Island’s finest imported disco dust.

He’s a 23-year-old rock star who got caught smoking pot.

How is Phelps going to do the breast stroke covered in tar and feathers?

Get it straight, sports fans: Phelps’ biggest crime here wasn’t snarfling the bong (or “dope pipe,” as it was called by the News of the World, the crack team of global do-gooders who broke this earth-shattering story). It was reinforcing every negative stereotype about college-age stoner dorks ever perpetrated on the square world. The flipped-back baseball cap alone is worth more hard time than any hit of South Carolina chronic.

Does anyone remember Ross Rebagliati, the Jeff Spiccoli of snowboarders? He was the Canadian dude who won the first gold medal in his sport back in ’98, only to later have it taken away when they found THC in his bloodstream in the post-event drug test. And then they gave it back to him (the medal that is, not the THC) when even the teetotalers at the Olympic Anti-Doping Committee had to agree that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug. If he actually was stoned when he won the event, they’d probably have to give him another medal, maybe even a trophy shaped like a hookah.

And what about the backstabbing hippie who snapped the incriminating photo for a bag of shells? Or the British tabloid press who gleefully aims to destroy careers with their pay-for-play pics of celebrity peccadilloes, e.g. rehab-reticent Amy Winehouse sucking on a crack pipe (not exactly a scoop) or superannuated supermodel Kate Moss hoovering some blow with her rock-star boyfriend (ditto)?

Today, though, it is the Olympian who has to eat dirt.

“I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment,” Phelps pleaded in an apology posted on the International Olympic Committee’s preferred method of communication, Facebook, though Phelps was presumably not addressing the baseball-cap issue.

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“I’m 23 years old and despite the successes I’ve had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.”

That’s not a bet I’d take, not even on short odds. Phelps is a phenom, a millionaire frat boy. That’s how we raise ’em here in the USA. Phelps might be short on taste, but he ain’t no slacker, and he’s got 14 gold medals to prove it.

Unfortunately, in this nation of apologists, we also breed ’em to live in fear. Phelps shouldn’t be on his knees, the palsied puppet of a publicist who lives in constant terror of losing their gift horse of a client, the fawning patsy of a fickle public. What the times demand is a man of principles—and a man who can swim 200 meters in 1:42 ought to be able to stand up and make a few waves.

Thankfully, not everyone bends so easily in the breeze. Speedo, one of Phelps’ corporate sponsors, a company unabashedly in the “performance-enhancing” biz -- though, despite their spitfire moniker, their core competency seems to be some sort of microscopic bathingwear and not pharmaceutical-grade crank -- stood by their man, calling him a valued member of their team.

And another of Phelps’ sponsors, Swiss watchmaker Omega, nailed it when they called the whole affair a “non-issue.” But then, they also make watches for astronauts.

Mike Edison is the former publisher of High Times, the former editor-in-chief of Screw magazine, and a professional wrestler of no small repute. He is the author of 28 pornographic novels and the memoir I Have Fun Everywhere I Go—Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World. (Fararr, Straus & Giroux/Faber and Faber).