THIS is the astonishing picture which could destroy the career of the greatest competitor in Olympic history.
In our exclusive photo Michael Phelps, who won a record EIGHT gold medals for swimming at the Beijing games last summer, draws from a bong.
The glass pipes are generally used to smoke cannabis.
And after sporting chiefs announced laws which mean four-year bans for drug-taking, Phelps’ dreams of adding to his overall 14 gold medal tally at the 2012 games in London could already be OVER.
Those dreams seemed the last thing on his mind when he puffed from the bong during two days of partying with students last November, a quiet time in the swimming calendar when athletes would not expect to get tested for drugs.
One party-goer who witnessed the star’s behaviour told the News of the World: “He was out of control from the moment he got there.
“If he continues to party like that I’d be amazed if he ever won any more medals again.”
Phelps’ aides went into a panic over our story and offered us a raft of extraordinary incentives not to run the bong picture.
It was on November 6, weeks after his Beijing triumph, that 23-year-old Phelps surprised students at the University Of South Carolina in Columbia by showing up unannounced at a house party.
He was visiting Jordan Matthews, a girl he was secretly seeing who was a student there.
Our source revealed: “Michael came to visit Jordan but ended up just getting wasted every night.
“He arrived with a group of girls hanging all over him. Jaws hit the floor when he walked in. You don’t get many celebrities in Columbia, so when Phelps comes to your party it’s a very big deal.
“He didn’t know many people so you’d think he’d be a little shy. But he was loud, obnoxious and slamming beers from the get-go.
“Every girl wanted a piece of him and every guy wanted to be his best buddy. He couldn’t get enough of all the attention.”
As he basked in his hero status, Phelps knocked back beers and shots of spirits. And when a student offered him the glass bong engraved with red writing, he did not hesitate, says our source.
The 6ft 4ins athlete, in a white T-shirt and navy cap worn back to front, clasped the device in his huge hands and inhaled deeply.
Our source said: “You could tell Michael had smoked before. He grabbed the bong and a lighter and knew exactly what to do.
“He looked just as natural with a bong in his hands as he does swimming in the pool. He was the gold medal winner of bong hits. Michael ended up getting a little paranoid, though, because before too long he looked like he was nervous and ran out of the place.”
But the next night, Phelps was out partying again. The source added: “He was right back at it at Pavlov’s bar.
“Like the night before he was holding court, throwing back shots two at a time and pouring drinks to every cute girl.”
Drink has got Phelps into trouble before. In 2004, aged 19, he got 18 months probation for driving while under the influence.
His wild behaviour is in stark contrast to the grim regime which took him to the top of his sport.
He once described his life, saying: “All you do is eat, sleep, swim; eat, sleep, swim; eat, sleep, swim.”
Last night Phelps’ management team and the sporting world closed ranks over the scandal.
The US Olympics Committee, who have pledged to clamp down on drug use, refused to comment, as did USA Swimming and Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman.
More surprising still was the World Anti-Doping Agency’s refusal to comment, given that they introduced the four-year ban on sport’s drug users.
Phelps, who earned £4million last year in endorsements, has resumed training for the 2012 games.
But there were fears about his commitment when, weeks after the bong incident, he began dating former stripper Caroline Pal.
Phelps is represented by marketing giant Octagon, which works with huge brands such as Mastercard and HSBC. They admitted proven cannabis use would be “a major taint” on Phelps’ character.
Spokesman Clifford Bloxham offered us an extraordinary deal not to publish our story, saying Phelps would become our columnist for three years, host events and get his sponsors to advertise with us.
In return, he asked that we kill Phelps’ bong picture. Bloxham said: “It’s seeing if something potentially very negative for Michael could turn into something very positive for the News of the World.”
He stressed that the swimmer had taken 1,500 drug tests and never failed one.
“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.”