Michael Phelps, the Rodgers Forge native who has won more gold medals than anyone in Olympic history, acknowledged yesterday that he had engaged in "regrettable" behavior and shown "bad judgment" after a photo of him smoking what appears to be marijuana from a glass bong was published in a British tabloid over the weekend.
Marijuana is classified by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees Olympic and international drug testing, as a banned "in-competition" substance, meaning Phelps is unlikely to face punishment or suspension. Marketing experts said the incident should have minimal effect on Phelps' multimillion-dollar sponsorships because of yesterday's quick apology.
"I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment," Phelps said in a statement released by Octagon, his management firm, and posted on his Facebook site. "I'm 23 years old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public - it will not happen again."
The photo in the News of the World tabloid of Phelps - who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing - shows him with his hat on backward, holding the bong to his mouth with his right hand while lighting it with his left. The tabloid says it was snapped at a party at the University of South Carolina in November. Phelps attended a Gamecocks football game against Arkansas in November and received a standing ovation from the crowd at halftime.
Phelps has never failed a drug test during his career and was one of several American athletes who volunteered to undergo additional testing to dispel any suggestions he might be benefiting from performance-enhancing drugs.
"We'll evaluate whether he remains in that program," said Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Marijuana, though not considered performance-enhancing, was added to the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances after the 1998 Olympics. Its use among Olympic athletes became a matter of public debate after Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive after winning a gold medal in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. Rebagliati was initially stripped of his medal but in the end kept it because marijuana was, at the time, not on the list.
An athlete is subject to WADA sanctions only for a positive test that occurs during competition periods, according to David Howman, executive director of WADA.
"We don't have any jurisdiction," Howman said. "It's not banned out of competition. It's only if you test positive in competition."
But Howman suggested that U.S. swimming officials or the sport's world organization, FINA, could punish Phelps if there is "sufficient evidence to indicate possession, supply or distribution."
FINA officials said they would not comment on the matter until today, as did the International Olympic Committee.
In 1998, Gary Hall Jr. was suspended for three months by FINA after he tested positive for marijuana during competition. Since then, WADA has become the oversight body for international anti-doping efforts. Phelps hasn't swum competitively since the Olympics and just recently started training again with an eye on the 2009 world championships. He said recently that he hopes to appear at the Austin Grand Prix in March.
His coach, Bob Bowman, said in a statement that "Michael has issued his statement. He regrets his behavior and I'm sure he'll learn from this experience. I'm glad to have him back in training."
The United States Olympic Committee, which Jan.22 named Phelps its Male Athlete of the Year, issued a statement saying it was "disappointed" in Phelps' behavior.
"Michael is a role model, and he is well aware of the responsibilities and accountability that come with setting a positive example for others, particularly young people. In this instance, regrettably, he failed to fulfill those responsibilities. Michael has acknowledged that he made a mistake and apologized for his actions. We are confident that, going forward, Michael will consistently set the type of example we all expect from a great Olympic champion."
This isn't Phelps' first public stumble. In 2004, when he was 19 and a few months removed from winning six gold medals at the Olympics in Athens, he was pulled over in Salisbury after rolling through a stop sign and charged with driving while intoxicated. Phelps publicly apologized, famously going on the Today show to ask the country for forgiveness and calling it an "isolated incident." He agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors that sentenced him to 18 months of probation, during which he was required to refrain from using drugs and alcohol, and to speak to kids about the dangers of making bad decisions.
As a result of his contrition, Phelps didn't lose any endorsements, which included Speedo, Visa, Omega watches, PowerBar and AT&T. He has recently added Subway, Kellogg's, Mazda and several others to his portfolio. Experts in the sports marketing business predicted the fallout would likely be minimal this time as well and praised Phelps' handlers for dealing with the situation swiftly and openly - issuing a statement admitting his mistake and apologizing.
"I would not expect him to lose a single endorsement, or any potential endorsements," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp., a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm. "He has handled himself so well to date that he has earned the benefit of the doubt. Especially at this age, experimentation with things like marijuana for young people in their late teens and early 20s is an understandable action."
Athletes are allowed to make a mistake, Ganis said, as long as the bad behavior isn't repeated, which would "demonstrate a character flaw." More important, he didn't attempt to cover it up, which, according to Ganis, could damage Phelps' career further by calling his character into question.
"He stood up," Ganis said. "He did not try and lie about it. He did not try to hide from it. Those are ways you handle a situation like this in a positive way."
John Antil, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware's Lerner College of Business and Economics who studies celebrity endorsements, called Phelps' statement "excellent."
"One of the first lessons we've learned from crisis management is to be honest. Next is to show regret," Antil said. "I would say that that statement is probably as good a statement as he could make. He didn't deny it. He gave a plausible reason: Young people do this. ... He didn't say, 'I didn't inhale.'"
All professional athletes have clauses in their endorsement contracts for behavior, Antil said, making it relatively easy for a company to drop Phelps for the impropriety.
"If Speedo decides this is a big deal, it's an easy way to get out of their contract," Antil said. "But I strongly suspect that's not going to happen."
Although the immediate response from Phelps' camp was strong, follow-up will be key, Antil said.
"If he goes on the Letterman show or some talk show, they're probably going to talk about it, and that's a good thing, and then you hope the press forgets about it and leaves him alone. My guess is because of what happened and his age and his degree of popularity, people are going to give him a break."
Phelps' mother, Debbie, a principal at Windsor Mill Middle School, didn't return calls from The Baltimore Sun seeking comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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