If anyone embodied the phrase healthy body, unhealthy mind in 2014, it was US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. His towering frame lends itself to his projected image of Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’; but as the philosopher predicted, nihilism has overcome the 29-year-old, who pled guilty to drink driving in October.
Fears have grown about the 29-year-old’s mental wellbeing since quitting the sport. Though he has been falsely accused of using performance enhancing drugs in the past, chiefly along the lines of his achievements being too good to be true, he has now admitted to having an alcohol problem. A Baltimore court gave the 18-time gold medallist a one year suspended custodial sentence, as well as 18 months of supervised probation.
Admittedly, Phelps, who had a blood-alcohol level of 0.14% when he was stopped – is far from the first high-profile athlete to suffer with demons after their retirement.
Most notably on this side of the water, former England hero Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne has never been far from the limelight during his ongoing battle with drug and alcohol abuse. Despite recent links to the vacant managerial post at Newcastle United, Gazza has now become synonymous with mental illness, rather than being remembered for his achievements on the field, and he is not alone.
Indeed, following a suicide attempt in January 2012, Dean Windass, who plied his trade as a striker with Bradford and Hull, leading the latter to the Premier League, revealed that sportspeople often find it hard to come to terms with such an early retirement.
It is only a small percentage that manage to carve out a new career in coaching or commentating on their chosen sport. Amongst the rest, depression and other mental illnesses are common. If anything has been achieved by this latest case of unease, it is that Phelps has become another statistic in the ever-increasing plethora of evidence that athletes across the spectrum need more support, both during and after their careers.
Phelps has been suspended from his associations with USA Swimming for six months, but his road to recovery may be far longer. Having risen to prominence at a relatively young age, Phelps quickly became the most decorated Olympian of all time. However, it would appear that that level of success has not come naturally to him, and the trappings of fame have evidently taken their toll.
What makes Phelps’ case worse is the fact that he has been seamlessly cut off by the USA Swimming team, though his former team mates are certainly in a difficult position, feeling the need to make a statement through punishing the former idol. In the UK, the likes of Gazza and Windass have been helped tremendously by supporting bodies such as the Professional Footballer’s Association. Indeed, an array of Gascoigne’s former clubs, and even rival clubs such as Arsenal, have helped him fund his attempts at recovery.
Regardless of his treatment within swimming, Phelps has undoubtedly been shamed by his arrest and charge. What is more, it is not even the first time it has happened. A decade ago, when he was just finding his way in the sport, he was found guilty of driving under the influence. In 2009, he followed that up when a photo of him smoking a water pipe, used for tobacco or marijuana, was published after a party in South Carolina.
He has admitted in the past to letting his country down, but it must be acknowledged that Phelps’ decisions cannot be viewed entirely in the context of logic. The Olympian has made the same mistakes again and again, but it is only recently that he has admitted to having a problem with drink. Phelps has therefore made a brave decision to admit to his addiction, and has done so in a scathing public eye.
Only time will tell whether his ongoing issues out of the pool will change the way he has perceived. Arguably, as his sport’s greatest ever athlete and a role-model to thousands of hopefuls, it should not take anything away from his accomplishments.
Sadly, as a result of his retirement, he has little time to redeem himself within the sport. Yet, that also means he has time to fully focus on reclaiming his health, without the added pressure of preparing for a major competition.
It is a familiar story of a fall from grace, but from more extraordinary heights than most.