The separation between the clean athletes and the athletes who have been labelled as ‘drug cheats’ has become clearer than ever at the Rio Olympics.
Swimmers in Rio are taking a stand against fellow athletes who’ve been caught out taking drugs and have also spoken out against governing bodies like the international swimming federation FINA that have allowed cheats to return to the sport. Current and past athletes have called for change toward a ‘no tolerance’ standard for future Olympic games.
There’ve also been reports that FINA’s testing of athletes during crucial periods has been less than thorough. News Corp this week reported that Chinese swimmer Ning Zetao and Russia’s Yulia Efimova were not independently tested last year in the five months they reigned as world champions. The only testing conducted was by RUSADA and CHINADA, the two national organisations which have been discredited for allowing athletes to compete while using illegal drugs.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world’s athletes were subjected to a series of rigorous tests. In those five months Australian swimmer Cameron McEvoy underwent three FINA drug tests, as well as a a test hours before his 4×100 metre freestyle relay final on Monday.
Most prominent among the athletes calling for change this week was Australian swimmer Mack Horton who called Chinese swimmer Sun Yang a drug cheat before swimming to gold in the 400 metre men’s freestyle final. The backlash from Chinese citizens and officials was immediate and enormous including vicious attacks on social media.. Horton said after the race “I used the words drug cheat because he tested positive… I just have a problem with athletes who have tested positive and are still competing.”
— TayenYau (@TayenYau) August 7, 2016
— Daniel Sutton (@danielsutton10) August 9, 2016
Despite those protestations of innocence, Sun was handed a three-month ban in 2014 by the Chinese Swimming Association for testing positive to the stimulant trimetazidine. CHINADA did not report the failed testing or ban at the time, instead waiting until Sun had served the ban and been cleared by it to swim again. Before the ban Sun had beaten Grant Hackett’s long-standing 1500 metre freestyle record in 2010 and again in 2011. He won gold in the 1500 metre freestyle and 400 metre freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics and tied for silver in the 200 metre freestyle.
Zhao Jia, deputy director of CHINADA, explaining the apparent leniency of Sun’s punishment, said he “had proved with sufficient evidence that he did not intend to cheat, which helped reduce his ban to three months.”
French swimmer Camille Lacourt backed Horton’s comments, adding her opinion that Sun “pisses purple”. Lacourt told a French radio station “When I see the 200m podium I want to be sick. I prefer to remember the crowd that cheered when we went out. I am very sad when I see my sport getting like this.”
Australia’s chef de mission Kitty Chiller also supported Horton after China demanded an apology for his comments: “Mack obviously has very strong views about the need for clean sport, as every single one of us does. He has every right to express his views and his displeasure in that sense.”
She added “We have no intention of making an apology.”
Australia’s bronze medal-winning synchronised swimmer Maddison Keeney was another who joined the chorus of disapproval. “I’m all for clean sport,” she said. “Everyone should have an equal playing field. I support Mack. I’m with him all the way.”
Amid the outrage at the acceptance of drug cheats, came a sight that stunned the “clean” camp: after Sun Yang won the 200 metre freestyle he hugged FINA’s executive director Cornel Marculescu in celebration. In his defence, after the press highlighted the incident, Sun explained “Marcu is a very good friend of (the) Chinese swim team and he actually watched me like a grandfather. So I was very happy to see him see me win the gold. I hope this friendship will last.”
Among the veterans to speak out was Australian olympic champion Kieren Perkins who said dopers should never be allowed back. “The admirable voice from top swimmers in Rio should embarrass those in sport’s governing bodies who stand for inaction and indecision,” he said.
“If you get pinged for using performance-enhancing drugs, the ban should be career-ending.
“Governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee and swimming’s FINA would be mad not to take this moment and tighten the rules around doping.”
US swimmer Michael Phelps, widely hailed as the greatest Olympian of all time, weighed in on the debate after his team mate Lilly King said her Russian opponent Yulia Efimova should not be allowed to compete.
In 2015 Efimova, then world champion, was handed a 16-month doping suspension by FINA, then, this year, she again tested positive – to the newly banned substance meldonium (the drug that brought Maria Sharapova down). The clean camp complained bitterly when the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that she could competer in the Olympics because she had already served a suspension.
King was outraged, saying “We’re competing clean and we’re going to stay that way. It’s still going to bring us success in the pool.”
She went on to beat Efimova in the 100 metre breaststroke. The crowd clearly agreed with King, loudly booing Efimova every time she competed, in preliminaries and the final.
Phelps did not mince his words: “I believe sport should be clean and sport should be on an even playing field, and I think that it’s sad that in sports today we have people who are testing positive not only once but twice and still having the opportunity to swim at these Games.”
He spoke for many athletes when he added: “I wish somebody would do something about it.” – Sam Pasfield
US gold medallist Lilly King says Mack Horton "said what everyone was thinking" about doping. "Props to him for speaking up first"
— Chris Barrett (@ChrisBarrett_) August 9, 2016
— Billy Bush (@billybush) August 9, 2016
Screenshot of Mack Horton as he realises he has won gold, from 7Olympics’ YouTube clip.
Sam Pasfield is editor of The Newsroom’s sports team.