Michael Phelps smokes a bong, won eight golds in Beijing!

TOlympic great Michael Phelps acknowledged "regrettable" behavior and "bad judgment" after a photo in a British newspaper showed him inhaling from a marijuana pipe.

But could the Thai instead have adopted that word from the Africans? In modern day Kenya, right where Mary Leakey found her water pipe, lives a rapidly disappearing tribe called the Bong’om. Their language is also called Bong’om. Across the continent we find Bong County, Liberia. It is named after Mount Bong. Did all of these Africans cling to some Thai word for a piece of cut bamboo? Or… could the early Thai stoners have named their most beloved device after the people who invented it?

In a statement released Sunday, the swimmer who won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Games did not dispute the authenticity of the exclusive picture published Saturday by the tabloid News of the World.

"I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment," Phelps said in the statement released by one of his agents. "I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

News of the World said the picture was taken during a November house party while Phelps was visiting the University of South Carolina. During that trip, he attended one of the school's football games and received a big ovation when introduced to the crowd.

While the newspaper did not specifically allege that Phelps was smoking pot, it did say the pipe is generally used for that purpose and anonymously quoted a partygoer who said the Olympic champion was "out of control from the moment he got there."

The party occurred nearly three months after the Olympics while Phelps was taking a long break from training, and his actions should have no impact on the eight golds he won at Beijing. He has never tested positive for banned substances. The case is unlikely to fall under any doping rules.

Phelps' main sanctions most likely will be financial -- perhaps doled out by embarrassed sponsors who might be reconsidering their dealings with the swimmer.

Phelps was in Tampa, Fla., during Super Bowl week to make promotional appearances on behalf of a sponsor. But he left the city before Sunday's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, abandoning his original plan to be at Raymond James Stadium.

The U.S. Olympic Committee said it was "disappointed in the behavior recently exhibited by Michael Phelps," who was selected the group's sportsman of the year. He also was honored as AP male athlete of the year, and his feat in Beijing -- breaking Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record for most gold medals in an Olympics -- was chosen as the top story of 2008.

"Michael is a role model, and he is well aware of the responsibilities and accountability that come with setting a positive example for others, particularly young people," the USOC said in a statement. "In this instance, regrettably, he failed to fulfill those responsibilities."

USA Swimming said its Olympic champions are "looked up to by people of all ages, especially young athletes who have their own aspirations and dreams."

"That said," the governing body added, "we realize that none among us is perfect. We hope that Michael can learn from this incident and move forward in a positive way."

Phelps was part of a group of elite athletes who agreed to take part in a pilot testing program designed to increase the accuracy of doping tests. His spot in the program could be at risk, said Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

"For one of the Olympics' biggest heroes it's disappointing, and we'll evaluate whether he remains in that program," Tygart said. "But some good education comes from this because he's going to suffer some penalties."

Marijuana is viewed differently from performance-enhancing drugs, according to David Howman, executive director of the World Anti-Doping Agency. An athlete is subject to WADA sanctions only for a positive test that occurs during competition periods.

"We don't have any jurisdiction," Howman said. "It's not banned out of competition. It's only if you test positive in competition."

Phelps returned to the pool a couple of weeks ago to begin preparations for this summer's world championships in Rome. He plans to take part in his first post-Olympics meet in early March, a Grand Prix event in Austin, Texas.

This isn't the first embarrassing episode for Phelps after an Olympic triumph. In 2004, a few months removed from winning six gold and two bronze medals in Athens, the swimmer was arrested on a drunken driving charge at age 19. He pleaded guilty and apologized for the mistake.

In his book "No Limits: The Will to Succeed," Phelps recounted how his first phone call was to his agent, and not his mother or coach Bob Bowman, because he knew they would yell at him.

Later, he called Bowman, who was supportive but told him, "Michael, just because you want to blow off some steam doesn't mean you can be an idiot."

Debbie Phelps, his mother, cried at the news of the drunken driving charge.

"While I don't condone his conduct, I am a teammate and fan. Unlike many fair-weather people, I am sticking by him."-U.S. swimmer Jason Lezak, in a text message to the AP

"That hurt worse, maybe, than anything," Phelps wrote. "I had never seen my mother that upset."

Bowman did not respond to phone and e-mail messages. Instead, he issued a terse statement through Phelps' agent.

"He regrets his behavior, and I'm sure he'll learn from this experience," the coach said. "I'm glad to have him back in training."

Olympic teammate Dara Torres said Phelps has become such a prominent figure that everything he does is news.

However, she said: "This in no way, shape or form diminishes anything he's done."

"It's sort of a double-edged sword," Torres told the AP on Sunday. "When you're recognizable, you're looked up to as a role model. He is recognizable and everything you do gets looked at and picked apart. I guess that's the price of winning 14 Olympic medals."

Jason Lezak, whose remarkable anchor leg of the 400-meter freestyle relay helped Phelps stay on course to break Spitz's record, said he was "saddened" to hear of the report.

"While I don't condone his conduct, I am a teammate and fan," Lezak said in a text message to the AP. "Unlike many fair-weather people, I am sticking by him. If my wife and I can help him in any way, we will. I believe he will grow from this and be better person, role model and teammate."

Last year, News of the World posted video on its Web site showing Max Mosley, the president of motor racing's governing body, engaging in sex acts with five prostitutes. Mosley admitted to being a part of the scenario but sued for breach of privacy and was awarded $120,000. Another news break involved Prince Harry in 2002, smoking marijuana and drinking before the legal age of 18.

During the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was stripped of his gold medal in the giant slalom after testing positive for marijuana,. The victory was reinstated because the sport's governing body did not have a rule banning the substance. Later that year, Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr. drew a three-month suspension after testing positive for pot.

"It's one of those substances that every year there's debate over it," said Howman, the WADA official.

The USOC's code of conduct only covers the period from when an athlete makes the Olympic team until the end of the games. But Howman suggested that U.S. swimming officials or the sport's world organization, FINA, could punish Phelps if there is "sufficient evidence to indicate possession, supply or distribution."

The International Olympic Committee expressed confidence Monday that Phelps will learn from his "inappropriate behavior" and continue to serve as a role model.

"Michael Phelps is a great Olympic champion," the IOC said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. "He apologized for his inappropriate behavior. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity and his commitment to continue to act as a role model."

During the Beijing Olympics, IOC president Jacques Rogge called Phelps "the icon of the games."

FINA officials said they would not comment on the matter until Monday.

"We have to be strong on these things," Howman said. "We certainly are relying on those who are responsible to look into this."

The USOC noted that Phelps acknowledged his mistake and apologized.

"We are confident that, going forward, Michael will consistently set the type of example we all expect from a great Olympic champion," the group said.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

Why Phelps should be proud, not sorry, for smoking marijuana bong.

Plastered all over the Internet right now is a photo of Michael Phelps smoking marijuana out of a bong. Phelps put out a statement saying that he acted in a youthful and inappropriate way and promises it won't happen again. Different people are weighing in on the possible impact of this photo on the gold medalist's $100 million endorsement deals.

Here are a few of my observations on Phelps' bong hits:

Phelps Is in Good Company

Phelps struck another blow to the myth that marijuana smokers are lazy couch potatoes. Here is the guy who has won more gold medals than anyone in history, and obviously his health and accomplishments are not hindered by smoking some pot. In addition to his swimming skills, he is a successful businessman who has turned his swimming skills into an enormous public relations platform and money generator. Successful and honorable people who have smoked some pot are all around us, from President Barack Obama to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Phelps Apology Was Unnecessary

While Phelps' statement said he acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, he did not pretend to have a drug problem and promise to go to rehab. So many times when celebrities are caught with drugs, they give tearful statements and promise to get help. Phelps doesn't appear to have a drug problem, and there is no reason for him to take up valuable treatment slots if he doesn't have a drug problem.

Does it Hurt or Help His Image?

While some "experts" are predicting that Phelps bong hits could cost him millions, I could also see it humanizing him and making him even more popular with a large section of the public. Phelps' swimming accomplishments have always been awe-inspiring, but who could relate to the guy who swam eight hours a day and had to eat 23 hamburgers every day to compensate for the calories he burns off in training? Seeing him with his hat on backwards taking a hit made me feel like I could relate to the guy more. With half of high school seniors having tried marijuana before they graduate, it is not clear that this photo is going to disillusion his fan base.

Pot Use Doesn't Discriminate, but Our Pot Laws Do

While society has made some progress on tolerating pot consumption, there are still many laws on the books that cause more harm than the smoking of marijuana. Close to 800,000 people were arrested for marijuana last year, and the vast majority for only possessing small amounts. Harry Levine and Deborah Small put out a report last year that found that between 1998 and 2007, New York City police arrested 374,900 people for low-level, misdemeanor marijuana offenses. That is more than eight times the number of arrests on the same charges for the previous 10-year period (between 1988 and 1997), when 45,300 people were picked up for having small amounts of marijuana.

Researchers also found stark racial disparities in who NYPD officers chose to arrest for marijuana offenses. The report found that 83 percent of those charged in these cases were black or Latino, despite equal marijuana use between whites and nonwhites. The discrepancy, the researchers asserted, is because NYPD officers stopped and frisked blacks and Latinos at a dramatically higher rate.

Once someone is convicted of a drug offense, they can lose college financial aid, food stamps, public housing and, in some cases, even voting rights. Money wasted and lives ruined … and for what?

Phelps Can Continue to be a Role Model

I like Phelps and don't think his bong hit should hurt him. If he truly wants to be a role model, he can take his comments and platform to the next level. He can say simply, "Yes, that was me smoking marijuana, and the laws that ruin peoples' lives for using marijuana should be debated and changed."

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