Skip to main content

Sensi Magazine

Michael Phelps' Higher Power

Aug 19, 2016 07:54PM ● By Randy Robinson

Michael Phelps at the 2008 Summer Olympics (photo by Marco Paköeningrat, via Flickr)

Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps? Michael Phelps! Michael Phelps….

That’s what my TV sounded like in 2008, during the last summer Olympics. Phelps broke records like Simon Pegg taking down a zombie. Commentators couldn’t stop talking about the guy. Phelps’s name came up even as other Olympians were winning gold for non-swimming sports.

Yeah, even back then, he was that famous.

Over the past couple of weeks, Phelps won even more gold medals, so many gold medals that he’s now the greatest Olympian of all time. And good for him.

But here’s the thing. Fame brings attention. And everyone wants a piece of it. Even some of the most sensible cannabis advocates have exploited his success.

That exploitation comes in the form of memes. You’ve probably seen these. They look a little something like this:



If you know Phelps’s story, then you know back in 2009 he got caught smoking marijuana. Someone took a photo of him hitting a bong, and the photo went public. Enter: the local sheriff, who dared to arrest an American hero.

As a result of the bong-pic, Phelps lost a million-dollar sponsorship with Kellogg’s, and he wasn’t allowed to swim for three months.

Cue cannabis activists. True to form, the armchair warriors of the Internet dug up photos of Phelps sporting his gold medallions. If the media were going to turn America’s small-town hero into a disgraced punching bag, by golly, we potheads were going to redeem him. Overnight, Phelps became a meme. 

Then, last week, these memes resurfaced in full force. Some looked exactly like they did back in 2009. Others got a few updates, but the message remained: Phelps is the god of Olympic pools, and he is one of us. He is one of the midnight tokers. 

But here's the thing: Phelps probably shouldn’t be the poster child for cannabis. Becoming an Olympic champion takes years of intense dedication, grueling work, and a lot of sacrifice. To be a medallion stallion, you'll need a level of obsessive motivation that can’t be achieved by using any drug, even our favorite "that's not a drug" drug, cannabis. 

We Don’t Know if Phelps Regularly Consumes

We only know, with absolute certainty, that Phelps smoked pot one time. He admitted to that. Has he smoked since then? We'll probably never know, because to protect his image, Phelps will never fess up if he did. So it appears these memes took a single, isolated incident and stretched it way beyond the limits of our knowledge.  

Is Phelps one of the many athletes who use cannabis to relieve pain? No clue. Though if he did, the Olympic Committee would be okay with that. Just so long as the smoking took place during training and not during the competition. 

Phelps Was an Alcoholic, Too

Here’s another reason Phelps shouldn't be the poster boy of pot: he was an alcoholic. His alcoholism got so bad it put other people’s lives at risk. In 2004, he received his first DUI, then he did again in 2014.  At one point, during his “downward spiral on an express elevator,” he even contemplated suicide.

Does that mean any ol' drunk should never rep our squad? Of course not. However, if we're attributing Phelps's success to Substance A, why not include Substance B, too? If it's pot and booze that make the champ, why not throw in any pain pills he's taken? How about any mood stabilizers, anti-depressants, or energy drinks he's downed in the past?

Think of the Kids

If you know me in person (and if you do, I’m sorry), then you know the “for the kids” argument is one of my least favorite arguments in existence. Rarely do issues truly affect kids in any special way, yet everyone from drug warriors to lobbyists to legislators will say they’re doing something “for the kids.”

But some of these Michael Phelps memes do concern me. And they don’t just concern me, they concern the rest of the staff here at Sensi. Here, take a gander at these two examples:



Notice something kind of...seriously messed up? They’re addressing kids! Although neither meme says it outright, both insinuate that kids can become record-breaking Olympians with a few puffs of herb.

One thing our community urges is responsible use. If a kid needs cannabis because they might otherwise die? Sure, let a doctor (or two) sign off on it. But recreational use among kids is precisely what we don’t want. Just as we don’t want kids chugging cough syrup, smoking cigarettes, or getting drunk – we don’t want them getting toasted, either.

Mind you, there's no scientific consensus if cannabis harms the developing brain. And that’s not just me speaking; that’s the American Psychological Association, so nyah. 

But as a community – and an industry – that’s cleaned up our act, we should not be addressing children this way. Even if it’s just tongue-in-cheek snarkiness, we’ve got to be careful how we word this stuff. There’s no age filters on the Internet (at least, no effective ones).

You might share one of these memes just amongst your bros, but then they’ll share it, and their friends will share it, and next thing we know, it’s landing in Kevin Sabet’s inbox. Prohibitionists and federal agencies will gleefully cite these sorts of memes to scare people into thinking we’re getting kids “hooked on drugs.” That hurts all of us, and ironically, it hurts kids who need cannabis as medicine. 

But What Does It All Mean?

I don’t want to bash on every Michael Phelps meme. Heck, I think they’re pretty hilarious, personally. And some are even fairly accurate. Like this one:


Notice how it doesn’t associate Phelps’s champ status with being a cannabis smoker. Rather, it suggests that cannabis hasn’t harmed Phelps’s ability to become a champion; that should be the real take-home message here.

I can think of another guy who smoked pot, only to become the most powerful man in the world. But that one’s a bit of a cliché these days – kind of like the Phelps memes.

Piers Morgan speaks with Michael Phelps about the infamous party photo