Phelps could learn from Rono's story of recovery


ATHLETICS:In ways, it’s the harshest lesson of all for any athlete outside the sporting arena; the difference between having fun and being smart, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

EVEN BY their own, often debasing, standards, it was difficult to fault the headline the News of the World ran last Sunday next to the picture of Michael Phelps puffing heavily on a bong of marijuana: “What A Dope.”

Whether he was inhaling – and Phelps has been cute enough to neither confirm nor deny that – it is proving a harsh lesson for the young man who made Olympic history in Beijing last August.

In ways, it’s the harshest lesson of all for any athlete outside the sporting arena; the difference between having fun and being smart.

At 23, Phelps may not yet realise it, but one of the things that comes with winning eight gold medals and setting seven world records at the same Olympics is responsibility. It simply comes with the territory, especially these days, with mobile phone cameras so widespread.

He may have been a million miles away from Beijing’s Water Cube when he picked up that bong at a student party at the University of South Carolina last November, but he was still Michael Phelps – the 14-time Olympic gold medallist, the most decorated male Olympian of all time, and, yes, a role model for young athletes across every sport.

There was nothing illegal about what he was doing, at least not in the sporting sense. (It is of course still mostly unlawful; a whole other issue.) Cannabis is not prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, except during competition. However, the USA Swimming association have issued him with a three-month ban. They reckoned Phelps had sent out the wrong message, and wanted to send the right one back.

The suspension will end in plenty of time for Phelps to swim at the World Championships in Rome next July, yet clearly he’s been shaken by the affair. On Thursday, he told his hometown newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, that he’s not even sure he’ll keep swimming until the London Olympics in 2012, as it was “going to require a lot of time and energy and a lot of thinking for myself”.

When the paper asked Phelps if he was a regular pot smoker, he again dodged the big answer: “This was stupid, and I know this won’t happen again. It’s obviously bad judgment, and it’s something I’m not proud of at all. I will say that with the mistakes that I’ve made in my life, I’ve learned from them.”

Indeed, maybe he has. Shortly after winning six gold medals at the Athens Olympics he was done for drink driving, and there haven’t been any repeat offences. But this is the man who the US Anti-Doping Agency used as one of their poster boys in the run-up to Beijing.

Now, inevitably, there are questions about whether Phelps should continue in that role – and inevitably some other questions are being raised too. Olympic sport has enough problems with people doing dumb things for dumb reasons.

Most of his many (big) sponsors are standing by him, including Speedo, Omega and Visa, although another, the Kellogg cereal firm, are reconsidering.

The picture of Phelps with a bong in his hand may not cost him a whole lot of money, but it probably has cost him some of his credibility, because even if you do have 14 Olympic gold medals, and a reputation for being unbeatable, you have to be careful not to throw it all away.

It’s happened before to some of the best athletes in the world, a career left in ruins not because of something that’s banned in sport or even necessarily harmful, but something that can prove just as destructive as, say, being busted for anabolic steroids. Because success is as much about how you carry yourself off the field as on it.

Henry Rono was preaching this in the most recent issue of the IAAF magazine. Rono never failed a drug test, and God knows how fast he would have run had he ever taken anything, but in a candid interview, following his IAAF 2008 Inspirational Award, one of the first great Kenyan runners talks about how his career fell apart shortly after he set his fourth world record, over 5,000 metres, in 1981.

“I’ve been to the top of the highest mountain and then down to the bottom of the world,” says Rono. “Looking back now, I can remember what happened in 1978 (when he set four world records in 81 days, over 3,000 metres, 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and the 3,000 metres steeplechase), but then the next eight years are more or less a blank.”

What happened in 1978 was that Rono started drinking.

Nothing excessive at first, but rather a simple indulgence into the post-race or off-season practice that was then fairly common in distance running culture.

In 1980, when Kenya boycotted the Olympics, Rono began cursing his fate and his luck, and the drinking become a real problem.

The following year his weight was fluctuating severely, and Rono was fast succumbing to alcoholism. He somehow managed to put a track season together, despite drinking daily, and late in the summer was invited to small meeting in Knarvik, near Oslo, for a crack at his 5,000 metres world record of 13:08.04. As soon as Rono arrived in Norway he promptly started drinking, and by all accounts got hammered drunk in the meeting hotel the night before the race.

He woke the next morning with a massive hangover, naturally enough. Filled with remorse, Rono went running, practically flat out, for over an hour in an effort to sweat the alcohol out of his system.

At 4pm, and paced by the British pair of Ian Stewart and a young Steve Cram, Rono produced one of the greatest world records in distance running history – given the circumstances – when he improved his record to 13:06.20, closing with a 56-flat last lap. It was to be his last world record and one of his last notable achievements on the track.

A year later, Britain’s Dave Moorcroft broke his world record, with Rono finishing a distant fourth, and as his drinking got steadily worse so did his ability to manage it. By 1984, he was a shadow of his former self, failed to make the Kenyan team for the Los Angeles Olympics, and spiralled increasingly downwards.

By 1990, he was penniless and staying at a homeless shelter in Washington DC.

Then the comeback began, not in a running sense, but a life sense. Rono got himself into a re-education programme, and now, aged 56, is teaching high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he also coaches several young distance runners.

“I’m a recovering alcoholic, but I’ve been sober for the last seven years. I believe I’ve recovered my dignity and my place in society. What I am doing in my life right now is like a gold medal to me. The issue of not going to the 1980 Olympics is now behind me and so too are the problems I had for 21 years from 1978.”

What Rono’s story illustrates is that there are many different ways to undo great athletic talent and achievement, that even in the prime of your career you have to be careful what you play with.

Phelps may have only scratched the surface of his sporting reputation, but it’s scratched nonetheless, and that’s the difference between having fun and being smart.