Five-Ring Circus

Olympics Jerk Watch: The Return of Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps holds a press conference on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro.

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

When the United States Olympic team emerges into Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro during Friday night’s opening ceremony, the stars and stripes will be borne by a certified merman. Five-time Olympian Michael Phelps, the most decorated athlete in the history of the games, will serve as the flag-bearer for the American delegation, an honor conferred by vote of the respective U.S. team captains. Phelps, 31, has said Rio will be his final Olympics—probably. Of course, he said the same thing at London in 2012, yet here he is again, a flip-flopper in flippers, Midas in a Speedo, a medal-hoarder and podium hog who just can’t quit winning.

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Everything old is new again, and with that in mind, it’s worth beginning our coverage of the Rio Games by asking the same question we presented at the outset of our London coverage: Is Michael Phelps a huge jerk?

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Nominee: Michael Phelps

Known for: Winning medals, getting DUIs, changing his mind.

Why he might be a jerk: When I inaugurated Slate’s now hallowed “Jerk Watch” feature in 2012, I did so because Phelps was by far the biggest American star at the London Games, an incomparably great swimmer whose dominance had set new standards not just for swimming but for all of sports. Tim Duncan aside, no athlete ever reaches world-historical greatness without hinting at some darker side or eliciting whispers from lesser competitors who seize on a champion’s personality defects as a way of cutting him down to size. So during the run-up to London, as Phelps was poised to compete in his fourth and purportedly final games, stories abounded of his supposed churlishness and immaturity.

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Ronda Rousey alleged that Phelps isolated himself from his U.S. teammates in Beijing in 2008. Baltimore sports-talk personality Nestor Aparicio—Phelps is from Baltimore—wrote that Phelps “used to hang up on my producers and say rude things” and that “his reputation around Baltimore … is not as good as his ego and accomplishments would portend.” Teammate Tyler Clary said he “saw a real lack of preparation” from the swimmer when both were training at the University of Michigan. “You see that all too often, where you get athletes that are incredibly talented that really take it for granted.” Speaking to Details magazine, Phelps himself admitted that he used to contrive early exits from practice and sneak out the back door, presumably so he could get to the club early and avoid running into Ronda Rousey.

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When he won six medals in London, bringing his all-time Olympic medal count to a record 22, I thought that would be the last we’d see of Michael Phelps. So did Phelps, apparently, and the prospect of obscurity made him very, very sad. Last week, ESPN aired a feature on the last four years of the swimmer’s life: his initial retirement; his subsequent malaise; an interstitial sowing-his-wild-and-presumably-wet-oats period involving late nights, a DUI (his second), and thoughts of suicide; and a Hallmark-ian redemption narrative in which he went to rehab, unretired, got engaged, had a child, made the Olympic team, and reconciled with his own estranged father, Fred Phelps (not that Fred Phelps).

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This was a made-for-TV movie in miniature, and if you’re looking for evidence of Phelps’ jerkiness, the ESPN feature offers plenty of it. For starters, the piece is but one in a recent series of mass-media Phelps redemption narratives, which implies a calculated media rollout of said narratives, which is annoying and feels a bit jerky. But wait, there’s more!

Consider:

  • His son’s name is “Boomer,” which is a fine nickname, but an exasperating given name. A nonjerk would never name his child Boomer.

  • Phelps is apparently close friends with former Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis, who is himself a jerk (among other things).

  • Phelps attributes his recent life turnaround to lessons gleaned from The Purpose Driven Life, a frustratingly unhyphenated inspirational manual written by evangelical preacher Rick Warren, who has lots of interesting beliefs.

  • Ray Lewis lent him the book.

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As a guy who just published a book of his own, the most frustrating thing about this story is that Phelps didn’t even buy the book himself. Support your local independent booksellers, guy! You’ve got the money! Anyway, add this new data to everything we already knew, and it’s easy to conclude that Michael Phelps is, indeed, a jerk.

Why he might not be a jerk: The most notable thing about Phelps’ redemption narrative, as told by ESPN, is just how normal it sounds. Phelps isn’t Dennis Rodman or Johnny Manziel—troubled athletes whose demons have led them to some truly weird and disturbing places. During his time in the wilderness, Phelps didn’t go off and befriend any despots, and he didn’t develop a world-class substance-abuse problem. He got sad that his life felt less meaningful than before, and he got a DUI. While I will stipulate that getting a DUI is an extremely reckless and inadvisable thing to do, his blood-alcohol content was 0.14, which is just 0.06 over the legal limit in Maryland. That is not a four-bottles-of-rum kind of night.

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Again, let me stipulate: I’m glad that Phelps’s freefall wasn’t more dramatic, and I can understand his psychological torment. It’s impossible to be bored when Phelps is in the pool; his gift is such that even laymen and landlubbers are drawn to it. Yet sustained greatness can be oppressive in its inevitability. Sports fans paradoxically want to watch the great be great while also wanting them to be toppled by the not-great—we cheer for genius because genius is what we aspire to; we root for underdogs because that is what we are—but the rest of the field has had little luck defeating Phelps over the course of his almost 20-year career. This consistency is why he is so frustrating, why critics and rivals seize on any small hint of imperfection—out of schadenfreude, yes, but also for the sake of variety, and because it’s nice to think the Phelps mythos contains gaps into which the rest of us can fit.

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It’s funny how time can transform one’s initial impressions. For example: In 2012, I counted the fact that Phelps appeared in a humorous Subway ad with formerly lovable sandwich pitchman Jared Fogle as possible evidence of his nonjerkiness. Four years later, with the disgraced Fogle now imprisoned for sex crimes, the Phelps-Fogle ad still seems like evidence of nonjerkiness, but now it’s because, in the ad, Phelps refused to give Fogle a bite of his sandwich and also drank Fogle’s soda. Take that, Jared Fogle, you horrible human being!

Where was I? The fact I was peeved by Phelps’s apparent aloofness four years ago now feels more like a reflection on me than on Michael Phelps. What is it like to be young, rich, and the best in the world at something the world actually cares about? I don’t know firsthand—my greatness only manifests itself in ways that the world abhors—but I can only assume it is really, really isolating. You’re not a normal person, yet the world demands that you act as if you were one, and it resents you when you don’t.

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The world wants you to be exceptional at your sport and prosaic in every other aspect of your life, and when you’re just a kid, it has to be nigh impossible to strike the proper balance. Maybe Michael Phelps wasn’t being a jerk when he was allegedly standoffish to others. Maybe he was just still trying to work some stuff out. At 31, in what are most likely the waning days of his career, he seems to have found a balance, and it’s telling that his American Olympic compatriots—from whom many of the grumbling attitudinous criticisms came in previous years—elected him as flag-bearer for the opening ceremony.

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Well-known athletes don’t often get that honor—the flag was carried by fencer Mariel Zagunis in 2012 and by Nordic skier Todd Lodwick in 2014. It’s reasonable to assume that Phelps’ peers chose him not as a marketing stunt, but because they thought he deserved it. You won’t find a better testament to his nonjerkiness than that.

Jerk score: In 2012, Phelps earned a score of 5 out of 10 on our highly scientific Jerk-O-Meter. I’ll let that straight-down-the-middle score stand for 2016. Michael Phelps is the most mainstream great athlete we have, thoroughly nondescript and average in all things, except for the thing that he does better than anyone ever has or will.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.

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