|Michael Phelps looks on during a Speedo Clinic at Holmes Palace on July 29, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.
Olympic athletes are often put on a pedestal. Fans, the media and sponsors help lift athletes up to the point of being national heroes who are celebrated for their incredible accomplishments on the field of play. It comes with the territory of being an Olympian.
But when an athlete falls from that pedestal, the world watches. Such is the case with Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, who experienced the downside to life on this pedestal after he was charged Tuesday with driving under the influence, excessive speed and crossing double lane lines. The arrest resulted in Phelps trending on Twitter with disappointment from fans, and being the subject of thousands of headlines — unsurprisingly, considering the attention and level of fame that comes with 22 Olympic medals.
USA Swimming acknowledged the severity of the arrest, which is the 29-year-old’s second DUI in 10 years, and announced Monday that Phelps has received a six-month suspension from competing in the sport. Phelps announced Sunday he has entered a six-week treatment program. He has also agreed to withdraw from competing at next summer's FINA World Championships. Phelps previously received a three-month suspension in 2009 after a photo surfaced of his mouth to a marijuana pipe.
The current sanction sends a message to fans that Phelps’ actions are unacceptable and not in line with USA Swimming’s code of conduct, which states that, “The privilege of membership may be withdrawn or denied by USA Swimming at any time where USA Swimming determines that a member's conduct is inconsistent with the mission of the organization or the best interest of the sport and those who participate in it.”
“We think the sanctions are appropriate and we are glad that Michael is seeking help," said United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun. "We are grateful that nobody was hurt and appreciate the speed at which USA Swimming and Michael took action.”
Phelps’ suspension also shows that Olympians are held to high standards and their actions – good and bad – are taken seriously, as Team USA athletes serve as role models and ambassadors for all Americans.
They are expected to embody the Olympic values of friendship, excellence and respect. They are expected to compete under the Olympic oath, through which they commit themselves “to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” And, perhaps most importantly, they are expected to live their lives by the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius, which the founder of the modern Olympic Games established to “represent a program of moral beauty.”
Recognizing the importance of Olympians’ roles in society, the United States Olympic Committee has created programs that further develop the Olympic values in these elite athlete role models, such as the Team USA Ambassador Program. TUAP exposes Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls to the expectations, roles and responsibilities of representing the U.S. and the entire Olympic Movement. Nearly 3,000 athletes have participated in the program since its launch in 2008.
Phelps has been held to Olympic-level standards since his first Games in 2000, and elevated higher than almost any other athlete atop the Olympic pedestal since 2004 when he earned eight medals (six golds, two bronzes) in Athens. Since then, while continuing to set countless records, he has built a name and a brand that is synonymous with the sport of swimming. The Michael Phelps Foundation, founded in 2008 to grow the sport of swimming and promote healthy lifestyles for children, is one of the many contributions he has made to the sport.
“I recognize that this is not my first lapse in judgment, and I am extremely disappointed with myself,” Phelps said in a statement Sunday. “I’m going to take some time away to attend a program that will provide the help I need to better understand myself. … Right now I need to focus my attention on me as an individual, and do the necessary work to learn from this experience and make better decisions in the future.”
Phelps’ recent DUI is probably one of the most publicized of the more than 1 million arrests that take place annually, but his arrest and subsequent suspension are reminders that drunk driving is a serious societal issue. They are also reminders to all Olympians that the world is watching.