Around the time that the now well-known Michael Phelps photo circulated, and I'm not talking about the one of touching the wall, I noticed people quickly split themselves into two groups.
One group was the "It's not a big deal" group. These people rationalized that many people smoked pot at one time in their lives and the Olympic champion was just proving that he's just like them.
The other group was the "You're a role model" group. Phelps wasn't like the rest of us because he was an Olympic champion and whether it was fair or not, he should be held to a higher standard.
But now I've finally come to realize that the reaction to Michael Phelps' transgression isn't really to him smoking pot. It's to the picture of him doing so. If there was no picture and just a story, Phelps wouldn't be in the position he is in now.
Just look at the other marketing superstar of the Beijing Games: Usain Bolt.
This Sunday, on the same day that the New York Times wrote that the Jamaican sprinter was hoping to become the first track star to pull in $10 million in endorsements, appearance fees and prize money a year, a German newspaper had this quote attributed to Bolt:
"In Jamaica, you learn as a child how to roll a joint. Everyone here has tried it. I did too — but I was real young then. My family and friends don't smoke and I don't hang out any longer with the people who smoke."
So now use your imagination. Pretend you never saw that Phelps photo and you only heard a story about him smoking at a college frat party. And then you heard the story that Bolt tells of him rolling and smoking as a kid. Some will argue that Bolt was then and Phelps is now. But what's the more damaging story? Think about it.
The difference between Phelps and Bolt? A picture. Today, a picture is not only worth a thousand words. It's also worth millions of dollars.
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