Column: Phelps speaks out on doping, but what took so long?
It wasn’t exactly Lilly King wagging a finger at a dirty Russian, then going on to beat her for a swimming gold medal in Rio.
Yet there was Michael Phelps — the semi-officially retired Michael Phelps — testifying before a congressional panel about doping and having to swim against competitors he couldn’t be sure were clean.
To that, those who care about clean sport and fair competition can only say one thing: What took you so long?
Silent for way too many years, Phelps seems to have suddenly found his voice in retirement. He pointed a finger of his own Tuesday at opponents he didn’t name, saying that some of them were surely juiced when taking to the water against him.
“I don’t believe that I’ve stood up at international competitions and the rest of the field has been clean,” Phelps said. “I don’t believe that. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that.”
If the most decorated athlete in Olympic history really feels that way, you have to wonder why it took him five Olympics to say something about it. Phelps had a rare platform he could have used to help clean up a sport soiled by doping but for reasons he only knows couldn’t be bothered to use it until now.
He could have made a stand in Beijing or London that would have resonated far from the pool. He could have spoken up like King for clean swimmers everywhere.
Instead, he kept silent, collecting his millions in sponsorships while the sport was nearly collapsing around him.
“I’ve stayed in my lane, so to say,” Phelps admitted.
Yes, Phelps always stuck to his swimming, and with great success. He could beat anyone — doped or not — so cleaning up the sport may not have been a top priority at a time when he was fixated on winning gold medals.
It wasn’t until the Rio Olympics were enveloped in the Russian doping scandal that Phelps spoke up, if just a bit. He called it “upsetting” and backed King in her finger wagging — and ultimately winning — showdown with Russia’s Yulia Efimova.
But until now, Phelps never made it a point to really say anything. Too intent, perhaps, on making sure his sponsors were happy, he never let his powerful voice be heard.
No reason to risk those million-dollar checks by airing the dirty laundry of a sport tainted by doping for the better part of the last half-century.
But Phelps says he’s now a father who worries about what he might someday have to tell his son about what doping has done to swimming and international athletics in general. Though he almost always beat other swimmers he believes were using performance-enhancing drugs, he says he knows it might not be an even playing field for his son or others.
“I would hope to never have that conversation,” Phelps said. “I hope we can get it cleared and cleaned up by then.”
Phelps used his appearance before a House subcommittee to join Travis Tygart, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, in calling for the IOC to allow the World Anti-Doping Agency to function more independently when it comes to penalties for doping. That might have made a difference last summer, when the IOC caved into pressure and allowed parts of the Russian team to compete in Rio despite revelations of a state-sponsored doping system.
Phelps said that while he was tested for drugs 13 times leading up to the Rio Olympics, he was shocked to find out 1,913 athletes in 10 sports known to have doping issues were not tested at all. WADA officials admitted earlier that of the 11,470 athletes in Rio, 4,125 had no record of any drug testing in 2016.
That the system is badly flawed isn’t some new revelation. On Wednesday, the Ukrainian bronze medalist in the women’s modern pentathlon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics was disqualified for using steroids, one of more than 100 positive doping tests in a reanalysis of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
But the system won’t change unless the athletes themselves help change it. And that takes courage and the willingness to risk careers, like that shown by the U.S. bobsledders and skeleton racers who were ready to boycott the world championships this year if they weren’t moved from Russia — which they were.
Credit Phelps with racing clean as he won 23 gold medals in five Olympics. He did it the right way, even while looking around the pool at suspected cheaters who could get in his way.
That he beat them anyway merely adds to his stature as the greatest swimmer ever.
What wasn’t nearly so great, though, was his silence when out of the pool.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg