Over the last week many pixels have been devoted to reproductions and discussions of this picture of Michael Phelps. The wide dissemination of this image — to which I have now contributed — compelled Phelps and his anointed press representatives to issue a fawning, overblown apology that made it sound as if he had done something really terrible, like publicly plucking the eyes out of puppies with a fork. This whole affair demonstrates a couple of things.

One is the continued stunning hypocrisy of a society where one intoxicant is not just tolerated, but celebrated — where a famous person can be well paid for endorsing a particular beer or vodka — but where being photographed indulging in a different intoxicant, arguably less harmful and certainly less physically damaging, has the potential to end an illustrious career.

Another thing it proves, though, is that highly paid flacks often have little or no imagination. I look at this photo and I don’t see a smoking gun (as it were); I see an image that can be interpreted in a number of ways, even if you concede its authenticity, which is always in doubt in the age of Photoshop. Here are three possible explanations:

  • What Phelps is actually holding is a decorative but poorly designed candle holder where the flame has consumed all of the oxygen inside, creating a vacuum that caused it to attach itself to Phelps when he leaned over to smell it. What we are seeing here is Phelps struggling valiantly to remove the offending object from his face.
  • Rather than sucking something out of the bong, he is in fact filling it with air from the freakish lungs that helped him win eight gold medals in last year’s Olympics. This air has magical healing powers and is intended for a 9-year-old leukemia patient.
  • In order to impress a girl he met at the party, Phelps in trying to suck himself inside the bong and swim in the bongwater.

That’s just off the top of my head, and I’m not even a professional spinmeister.

As I was writing this, I learned that Kellogg’s had dropped their endorsement deal with Phelps, which seems cowardly. If they had any guts they’d put the picture on a Wheaties box, but replace “News of the World” with the words “Breakfast of Champions.”