Unreasonable Expectations

Phelps, Obama, and the Cult of Personality

I have to say, I was seriously irked last week by the public reaction to the “shocking” announcement that swimming sensation Michael Phelps had taken a hit from a bong. How scandalous! In the summer of 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, Phelps was, to put it crudely, “the shiz.” How quickly the tables can turn.

Last summer, Phelps was a national hero — after successfully securing eight gold medals and breaking seven world records in one Olympics, he was scoring sponsorships left and right. Phelps was America’s sweetheart with his boyish good looks and honest open expression. He was the idol of not only the young swimmers in the world but also of most of the American public. It was a show of strength even amid domestic instability.

Recently, however, photos of Phelps taking a hit have been spread across all forms of media ­— newspapers, tabloids, and television stations. It’s almost as if every news editor and anchorman has witnessed personal betrayal, a mortal sin. However, the only people to blame for those who believe that Phelps has “betrayed them” are members of the media itself.

Who created the image of Michael Phelps as the clean-cut boy next door? The pure-hearted young man only intent on swimming his best and achieving success for himself and United States? It is inevitable that when an individual becomes a public figure, a particular image is always associated with him. This “image” is often two-dimensional and flattens the individuals’ other talents or characteristics. However, the media plays up the image and the public is only more than willing to embrace it.

The cult of personality has long been an issue of debate. Many argue that public figures are held to different standards than normal people. Are they not human? Stripping aside their status and fame, they are all ordinary people just very good at one particular thing. They might have stumbled upon their celebrity. Be this the product of welcome or unwelcome fame, in the public consciousness such individuals lose their personal identity once they become public figures. In the case of political figures or individuals regarded as national heroes, the pressure is especially heavy. The burdens of maintaining the same image with which one debuted into the public mind is doubtlessly taxing.

It is impossible to tell society as a whole to sympathize with these public figures. It is an intrinsic trait of society to be idealistic and often victims of their attention are either raised to the highest pedestal or ostracized to the far ends of the earth. There is seldom a middle ground for those in the public spotlight — those who are intent on following their career but detest the public attention will purposely shun the media.

Society is a scary thing. Once it develops a reputation for a figure, it latches onto it and begins to spread the rose-tinted visions of it. The way Phelps’ face was all over the recent media, I could not help being reminded of the iconic posters of our recently sworn-in president, Barack Obama. While now Obama is being hailed the “change we need,” “the fresh face,” and even the symbol for “progress,” the incident with Michael Phelps makes me wonder how long it will take before Obamamania dies off and the man’s popularity becomes stale.

Many have brought up this question. Obama has already shown slight derivations from the ideologies he championed during his campaign. “When will the honeymoon be over?” critics ask with a knowing smirk. We know that the honeymoon will end at some point — it’s only a matter of when and how long it will take for it to come to an end. Will it be the result of a graceful landing or a catastrophic crash?

What will not be justified is if there is a general backlash against our president and cries of disillusionment. When the time comes, just remember that it was you who created the icon. Heroes are not made overnight and are certainly not made by themselves.

Even if heroes fall in the eyes of society, it does not make their deeds or success any less impressive. In the case of Michael Phelps, my amazement and admiration in him as an athlete has not changed. The man is amazing. Despite the current scandal, the only things that have really taken a hit are his idol-like status and a Kellogg’s sponsorship. Phelps is no less a swimmer than he was before. Let us hope that people are more open-minded when Obama’s hero status fades as he assumes his presidential duties.