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Fallen hero, or mere mortal? That’s the question many have been debating since the release of photos showing Olympic golden boy Michael Phelps smoking a marijuana pipe.

Taken at a November 2008 University of South Carolina party and published in a British tabloid on Feb. 2, 2009, the pictures became the talk of the media after Phelps confirmed they were real.

As a result, eight individuals were arrested — seven for drug possession and one for distribution. USA Swimming imposed a three-month suspension against Phelps that included withdrawing monthly financial support.

Chuck Wielgus, director of USA Swimming, said the suspension does not establish a precedent, according to The Baltimore Sun, Phelps’ hometown newspaper. “As a youth sports organization with hundreds of thousands of young athletes, we simply felt that it was important to send a message that we thought to be in the best interest of Michael, USA Swimming, the Olympic Movement and the sport.” Wielgus said in an e-mail to the paper. “The decision was not made quickly or easily, and many were consulted in the process. I also want to stress that this decision was made in collaboration with Michael and he was in no way coerced or threatened; to his credit, he participated in the process and voluntarily accepted the reprimand.”

As of press time, Phelps was undecided about swimming in the 2012 Olympic Games, but his return to competition is expected at this month’s 25th Annual Charlotte UltraSwim meet in North Carolina.

A return to his former public image may not be as easy. After a 2004 drunk driving arrest, restoring his role-model status a second time could require a gold-medal caliber effort.

“He’s really fallen in stature in my eyes,” said Jefferson High School swim coach Jim Sharp, in an interview with Indiana’s Journal & Courier newspaper.

An athlete’s job has always been part role model and since Beijing, Phelps has been making millions at his other job — product pitchman. Following release of the photos, a report in Advertising Age claims he’s now less desirable as a brand. Several companies publicly reconsidered their endorsement deals with Phelps. Most notably, the Kellogg Co. will not be renewing agreements, and Mazda made him publicly apologize to the nation of China.

There’s no denying marijuana is an illegal drug in the United States, but many fans, sponsors (including Speedo swimwear and Omega watches), and leaders in the aquatics world have accepted his apology.

“As a citizen, Michael Phelps displayed inappropriate behavior,” stated FINA in a public statement. “But his sincere regret and the promise that such a situation will not happen again are sufficient guarantees that this great star will continue generating respect and appreciation from all fans of our sport around the globe.”

John Whitmore, National Recreation and Park Association Aquatics Branch president, agrees. He said in spite of the incident, Phelps still has star power, and it’s what he does now that will solidify his legacy and enable him to remain a positive ambassador for aquatics.

“A single scandal creates a lot of damage to a sports star’s image, but it’s the series of denials or

declarations of ‘it wasn’t my fault’ that damages their future credibility and breaks trust with those who looked up to them. Phelps did not do that,” Whitmore noted. “Moving forward, he should freely talk about this failure, how stupid it was, and share this lesson in life with others. It is the courageous thing to do and may even help more people than his triumphs in the pool.”

Regardless of whether Phelps chooses to speak out, Whitmore believes pool operators can use the athlete’s example as a teachable moment, no matter how they personally feel about his actions.

“I have heard everything from outright condemnation to a simple ‘whatever,’” he said. “What everyone agrees with is that Michael should get back into the pool and out of the parties.”