The Character Clause

by Casey Barrett

Codes of Conduct and Olympians Behaving Badly…

It was a hot spring night by the beach. A couple of newly minted American Olympic swimmers were blowing off some steam. Scratch that cliché – they were getting shit faced. They were pounding Coors Light cans in the parking lot, before they intended to charge into a divey bar called Pete’s and pound many more. They were a few feet from the sand in Neptune Beach, Florida, and about twenty-five minutes away from the Bolles School in Jacksonville, where they’d trained for the previous year to become members of Team USA.

With a few ounces left in the last can, some cops took notice. Interrupted their staggering entry into the bar. One Olympian bolted, the other stood his ground; their non-Olympian friends swayed nearby. The one who stayed was less than respectful to the curious cops. The dreaded Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am? may have been uttered… This never ends well. In this case it resulted in an arrest. And then it got worse.

The swimmer’s bitter long time rival learned of this incident soon after. The rival had placed fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials a few weeks earlier. The arrested swimmer in question placed 2nd. The swimmer who had placed third immediately retired after the race. Meaning that the bitter 4th place rival was now an alternate on the U.S. Team. And he intended on getting back to the Games by any means necessary. He was determined to remove his rival and take his spot.

In this case, that meant raising the Character Clause – that shades of grey code of conduct that Olympians from every nation are frequently forced to sign after making the Team. Basically, it means: Don’t bring shame on yourself or your nation. Or we reserve the right to throw you off the Team.

This shockingly spiteful scenario went all the way to court. The drunken swimmer outside the bar was allowed to stay a member of Team USA. The bitter rival retired shortly thereafter. Here are their names: Drunken Olympian – Greg Burgess, winner of the Olympic silver medal in the 200 IM at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Bitter rival – Ron Karnaugh, former American record-holder in the 200 IM.

At the time, I was roommates with Burgess. I had a front row seat to this ridiculous debacle.

I share this story now, after all these years, because yet again the Character Clause has reared its judgey head in the lead up to another Games. In this case, surrounding the gun-toting, bar-fighting, journalist-threatening Aussie macho tool Nick D’Arcy. You might remember him from a previous post – The Price of Momentary Madness. In that story, I described the time D’Arcy assaulted fellow swimmer Simon Cowley, messed him up in a brutal life-shattering way, and then spent the next three years apologizing, declaring bankruptcy, and trying to get back on the Aussie team.

Well, D’Arcy’s back now, and he’s back in trouble. This time for posting pics of himself, along with fellow Olympian Kendrick Monk, toting an assortment of assault weapons in a California gun shop. Take a LOOK. That’s D’Arcy on the left, looking like a pretty boy wanna-be gangster. Clearly, there’s no comparing actual assault with an ill-advised photo op. Yet the Australian Olympic Committee frowned on it enough to declare that both D’Arcy and Monk must leave the Olympic Village immediately after they finish competing in London.

To steal a line from Gary Hall, Jr., Nick D’Arcy is as sharp as a marble. It’s almost comical what a horrendous example he is for the Aussie Olympic team. I say ‘almost’ because there’s nothing actually comical about the damage he inflicted on Cowley. But what’s funny (in a depressing sort of way) is that he truly doesn’t get it. When questioned recently by a journalist about the Cowley saga at a meet in Irvine, CA, D’Arcy replied with a sneer: “Careful.” As in: “Watch what you’re saying punk, or I’ll fuck you up.” ie: the exact same response that got him in all the trouble in the first place.

Now, there’s no comparing this clueless sad sack with the momentarily lapse of drunkenness by Greg Burgess. It’s worth noting that Burgess went on to become a proud and decorated member of the U.S. Marine Corps. No telling what D’Arcy will go on to do, but whatever the over / under is, I’m betting the under. These two have almost nothing in common.

However, they do have something vital in common: They are both world class swimmers capable of standing on an Olympic podium. Burgess raced to silver in the 200 IM back in Barcelona; the smart money is on D’Arcy to win silver too, behind Phelps in the 200 fly in London. So, the question is: Does a lapse in character forfeit you from competing at the Games? Where is that line drawn? With the law, or with something more essential, more Olympian?

This is part of what gives the Games its aura – Olympians are hoisted up on a pedestal high above that of other professional athletes. The expectation of admirable character among Olympic athletes is part of what sells the Games. (Never mind how disingenuous it is in countless cases…)

It’s what makes Michael Phelps taking a hit from a bong a story. That’s no more a story than a college freshman having his first shot of tequila. It’s amusing that the moralists try to make it anything more.

But where to draw the line? Drinking outside bars, smoking pot, posing with unloaded guns – that, sad to say, describes a large swath of American men. Guys who don’t get suspended from their jobs because of the ways they might misbehave in their off-hours…

Lumping Greg Burgess and Michael Phelps into a category with Nick D’Arcy is unfair. And that’s the point. The “character clause” that hovers over Olympians is utterly arbitrary. It’s a false ever-shifting sense of enforced morality based on something that the Games never were. (NOTE: This is entirely separate from cheating. There are Drugs, as in the kind used to gain an unfair, immoral edge, and then there are drugs – the kinds used to, well, mess you up in let-loose ways…)

World class athletes misbehave. Probably more than the rest of us, given their resources and get-out-of-jail-free cards.

But how does that relate to what they do in the water?