Phelps' 'Mistake': De-Stressing or Chasing a Thrill?

Psychological experts say the thrill of victory contributed to his misbehavior.

ByABC News
February 2, 2009, 2:26 PM

Feb. 2, 2009— -- As the buzz over published pictures of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps apparently smoking marijuana continued, many may ask what might have motivated the star athlete to be embroiled in such a high-profile disgrace -- for the second time in his career.

The episode is eerily reminiscent of Phelps' DUI arrest shortly after the 2004 Athens Games, at which he won six gold medals. Phelps was 19 years old at the time.

And Phelps is not the only Olympian or athlete to be called out for post-victory behavior. A decade ago, 1994 Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul entered an alcohol rehabilitation program following a drunken-driving accident in 1997. She said that she had begun drinking heavily several months before her crash.

In May 1998, another Olympic swimmer for the United States -- Gary Hall Jr. -- experienced a public fall from grace similar to Phelps'. After testing positive for marijuana, the 1996 Olympics medalist earned a three-month suspension by FINA, swimming's international governing body, though the suspension was later lifted after less than a month.

Australian swimmer and Olympic silver medalist Scott Miller, too, garnered headlines in 1997 after testing positive for marijuana -- a finding that netted him a two-month suspension from FINA in 1998. This black mark, however, was recently eclipsed when last December, police seized various drugs, including pills suspected to be ecstasy and powder believed to be methamphetamine, from a storage facility allegedly used by Miller.

And in October, 24-year-old Chinese Olympic table tennis silver medalist Wang Hao was sent to mandatory counseling after getting into a fight with a security guard who was trying to stop him from urinating outside a karaoke club, according to local reports.

Psychological experts say the common thread to these examples may be a reaction to the stress of victory on the international stage -- and the new pressures of dealing with their extraordinary achievements.

Dr. David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said that while he does not know Phelps personally and is hesitant to comment specifically on his situation, such behavior among athletes who have achieved the pinnacle of success is not unusual.

"The stress of this publicity can be overwhelming," he said. "It's an extreme amount of attention and press."

Martin Binks, director of behavioral health at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, agreed that there exists a tendency among some athletes to act out after a victory -- sometimes to the detriment of their public image.

"It's pretty common human behavior to go out and celebrate after a major success," Binks said. "Unfortunately, athletes are put in the limelight and expected to be role models."

He said that in this instance, as well as in the case of Phelps' DUI, his actions "snowballed beyond the limits of acceptable behavior."

Phelps, who is also risking millions of dollars in endorsements with his most recent actions, had this to say in a statement released by one of his agents: "I engaged in behavior, which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. 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."