Michael Phelps is a great swimmer, a great champion and, from all indications, a pretty chill dude.
Is he perfection incarnate?
Is he a demigod beyond reproach?
Should we mindlessly extol him because he won a whole heap of medals?
Apparently, some people think we should.
But before I wonder aloud whether humanity has lost its damn mind, let me clue you in to where all this is coming from.
London-bound swimmer Tyler Clary caused a small-scale media firestorm on Monday when he characterized Olympic teammate Michael Phelps as an unmotivated putz coasting to glory on his God-given talent.
"Basically, he was a swimmer that didn't want to be there. They can talk about all of these goals and plans and preparation they have. I saw it. I know. It's different. And I saw somebody that has basically been asking to get beat for the longest time."
Clary, who observed Phelps' lax preparation firsthand when the duo trained together at the University of Michigan, then goes on to daydream about how sweet it would be to beat Phelps.
Based on the comments posted below Alexander's piece and elsewhere around the Internet, it seems the majority reaction to this story has been unbridled anger toward Clary.
How dare he question the great Phelps?
Where does this nobody get off criticizing the greatest Olympic athlete of all time?
First off, Tyler Clary isn't a nobody.
He's probably the third-best all-around swimmer in the world. He just so happens to live in the same country as Phelps and Ryan Lochte—1 and 1a in that particular category.
Second, when did it become a public sin to criticize people more talented than you?
I'm pretty sure that's the whole premise of democracy.
Third, and this is the biggie: Would you rather Tyler Clary lie?
Alexander asked Clary what he learned from watching Phelps when they trained alongside one another.
He could have muttered the same kind of fainthearted cliche most athletes revert to when asked a question like that.
"Uhhhh...yeah...He really works his tail off."
Of course, that would have been a lie.
Even Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, has readily admitted to the likes of 60 Minutes that Phelps isn't the world's hardest-working bee. Later in the same interview, Phelps was equally candid about his growing disinterest in swimming after Beijing.
That's no sin, but it's the truth.
The sin here is that many folks believe Clary should have lied to Alexander. By their line of logic, Clary isn't famous enough to tell it like it is.
Is there a threshold of fame one needs to cross before they're allowed to speak truth?
Now I'm not saying people can't criticize Clary's comments.
It's perfectly valid to say Clary isn't a fair judge of Phelps' training habits. You might say he doesn't understand Phelps' body and, therefore, might not understand the nuances of his regimen. You could even add that his rhetoric was a bit overzealous.
All fair game.
But people aren't making that point. People are saying Clary lacks the clout needed to cast any sort of negative light on Phelps.
That's the problem.
On a deeper level, I imagine a lot of the vitriol surrounding this episode stems from denial.
A lot of folks admire Michael Phelps, and they don't want to believe that his unimpeachable greatness happened by accident.
People would rather believe in the old bootstrap theory that says all good things in this life are the byproduct of hard work.
Hate to break it to you, but America doesn't work like that.
Some people have more latent ability than others. Some people inherit their success—be it by wealth or genetics. Sometimes, people get plain lucky.
Michael Phelps isn't the greatest swimmer who ever lived because he's the hardest-working swimmer who ever lived. He's the greatest because his body can do things your body can't.
That's tough to hear in a country that venerates Protestant work ethic, but it's true.
And rather than accept that truth, what do we do when some nobody like Tyler Clary runs afoul of our myths and our mythic figures?
We cut him down to size. We tell him he has no right to speak ill.
In effect, we censure him.
Not so American when you look at it that way, is it?