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USOC offers Michael Phelps help to avoid further embarrassments

February 4, 2009 | 12:50 pm

Michael Phelps U.S. Olympic Committee boss Jim Scherr has sent Michael Phelps a letter offering the USOC's assistance and resources to help Phelps avoid future incidents like the publication of the bong photo that has caused the Olympic hero significant embarrassment, the Chicago Tribune has learned.

Asked about Phelps during a teleconference today previewing the 2010 Winter Olympics, which begin 53 weeks from now, Scherr said only that he would be talking with Phelps and "people close to him."

"His sponsors and the people close to him will be and are concerned about whether or not there may be a recurrence or whether or not this is a pattern of behavior,'' Scherr said.

"Based on this occurrence, we at the United States Olympic Committee are exceptionally disappointed in Michael, as I know he is in himself. And we will be following up and having direct conversations with Michael and the people that are close to him in the near future.''

The Feb. 2 edition of the British tabloid News of the World had a picture of Phelps sucking on a glass pipe of the type generally used to inhale cannabis, an illegal drug, at a party that reportedly took place Nov. 6 in Columbia, S.C.

Phelps pleaded guilty to drunk driving and received 18 months of probation in 2004.

Speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, who gained a measure of celebrity (especially among young people) immediately after he won an Olympic gold medal at age 19 in 2002, said he had a significant change in thinking about his actions at that point.

"My outlook on my behavior changed dramatically,'' said Ohno, who would win another gold in 2006 and also win the 2007 edition of "Dancing With the Stars.''   

"All Olympians, once they are allowed to call themselves a U.S. Olympic athlete, [have] certain guidelines and protocol. If someone does have a camera phone, especially in public and in private, it is important to represent what you would like your mom to see or a little kid to see.

"It is very important to be aware of your surroundings and what you are doing and the choices you make.''

Drew Johnson of Octagon, Phelps' management company, said in an e-mail that his company had heard nothing from the Richland County, S.C., sheriff, who said Tuesday that he was considering charges against Phelps and that the Sheriff's Department was investigating the incident.

Octagon has been under fire since the News of the World reported that the company's representative in London, Clifford Bloxham, had offered Phelps' services as a columnist for three years if the newspaper did not publish the photo and the story.

"News of the World's interpretation is inaccurate,'' Johnson said in the e-mail. "They're a tabloid and we have no intention of getting into a shouting match with a tabloid.''

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Michael Phelps. Credit: Marwan Naamani / AFP/Getty Images