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Phelps discovers that fame is a two-headed coin When we build star athletes up to be something they are not, we are often left disappointed

We live in a hero-worshipping society when it comes to our athletes. We praise their exploits and put them on the highest pedestal.

But when we build star athletes up to be something they are not, we are often left disappointed.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, once two of baseball's biggest heroes, are forever tainted by steroids allegations. Alex Rodriguez could end up in the same boat if reports that he took performance-enhancing drugs are accurate.

And we all know how Michael Vick went from the most popular player in the NFL to the most reviled after he descended into the evil world of dog fighting.

These are just a few examples.

Michael Phelps is another.

A picture of the Olympic swimming star that appeared to show him inhaling marijuana from a bong at a party on the University of South Carolina campus was made public recently. He verified the photo is authentic and apologized.

Maybe Phelps really is sorry, but rumors that someone in the Phelps camp allegedly tried to buy off a British tabloid to keep the picture from coming out might make his apology look less than sincere in the eyes of cynics, who remember his drunken driving charge four years ago.

We shouldn't beat up Phelps too much. He's young, which automatically makes him prone to mistakes. Yes, smoking pot is illegal and shouldn't be condoned. But let's be honest, haven't we all done things when we were young that we regret?

The big difference between Phelps and people his age is they are not an American icon after winning 14 Olympic gold medals, including an incredible eight at the Beijing Games last year. That puts him on a totally different level than most 23-year-olds.

Phelps also has to deal with the wholesome image his handlers carefully created for him. I'm guessing that wasn't his idea. He's probably uncomfortable with it. But he had to know what he was getting into when he made the commitment to become the greatest swimmer in history.

With that comes celebrity, the ultimate backstage pass. It means access to great seats at sporting events and VIP rooms at private gatherings. It means not having to wait for a table at the best restaurants.

It also means your life is no longer your own. It means every move you make, every action you take is news. It also means your missteps affect how you're viewed by once-adoring fans.

Maybe his image-makers should have done a better job of schooling him on the pitfalls of being a high-profile personality. But Phelps also needs to be smart enough to keep himself out of compromising situations. In this YouTube age, someone in Phelps' position has to be more aware of his surroundings when partying on college campuses.

While cereal giant Kellogg Co. pulled its marketing deal off the table, most of Phelps' endorsees have decided they need him to push their products. They also might be hoping that consumers will eventually look past his transgressions.

USA Swimming already suspended Phelps from competition for three months and now Columbia, S.C., police are investigating to see if criminal charges are warranted. So he's clearly paying the price of stardom.

Perhaps tired of dealing with the trappings of success, Phelps has contemplated not participating in the 2012 Olympics. The mere thought of that no doubt sent shivers down the spine of television executives, who need his star power to sell the London Games to sponsors.

Eventually, Phelps will get past this. He'll retreat to his family's home in Baltimore, regroup and return to the pool.

One thing we know about this country is it can be forgiving once an athlete gets back on the right track. If Kobe Bryant can regain support of fans and endorsers after his highly publicized sexual assault trial, surely Phelps can win people over again.

The pot-smoking incident wasn't good for Phelps, but it was a lesson to us. When cheering great athletes let's remember that they are, first and foremost, human.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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