I'll say up front that I lean towards the first camp.
But I think the bigger discussion is about role models in general. Like it or not, people in the public eye are held up as role models. It is hard for me to tell how many of them "choose" that designation. We certainly put star athletes in that position, musicians, actors, politicians? Not so much anymore, but certainly Barack Obama is a role model.
Dictionary.com gives multiple definitions.
- a person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, esp. by younger people.
- A person who serves as a model in a particular behavioral or social role for another person to emulate.
- someone worthy of imitation; "every child needs a role model"
- A person who serves as an example of the values, attitudes, and behaviors associated with a role.
There are subtle differences here - there's a difference to me between "serving as a model" and "worthy of imitation."
Back to Michael Phelps. I think he still is a role model. I think he is a wonderful example of how dedication and hard work can achieve unbelievable goals. I also think we ask a lot of our role models - we expect all of their behavior to be exemplary all of the time. And in this day and age of instant communication, that includes their private behavior. How many of us can say that we are "worthy of imitation" ALL the time? And lest you say, but wait, I'm not a public figure, well, yes, you are. There are people who know you, and especially if you have children, they're watching you a good portion of the time. You may be more inspiring than you know.
A model is not the real thing. A model is a mock up or facsimile, used as an example. A model may, for example, be hollow inside (John Edwards comes to mind). But a model can still give us an example of something worthy of imitation. Something to strive for, with the awareness that real people are, well, real. They make mistakes, the role models (of all levels of fame) apologize, and they strive to learn from those mistakes. That's the behavior we should be imitating. That's the lesson we should be passing on to our kids. That's the real-life role model that all the 12-step programs use - one day at a time, don't beat yourself up, learn and grow. Our current president has admitted smoking pot. But somewhere along the line, he learned that it was not compatible with achieving his goals, he learned from his mistakes, and now look what he's done!Rather than being disillusioned with Michael Phelps as a role model, use it as a teaching moment that real people make mistakes. Role models 'fess up, learn their lesson, and continue to be worthy of imitation. And having compassion for people, in all their imperfectness, well, that's a lesson a good role model teaches us, too.