Swimming

Swimmer Mack Horton’s stand against drug cheats, while admirable, brings into focus the double standard over who is doping and who is seen to have made an innocent mistake. By Tracey Holmes.

Hypocrisy and bad blood

Australian swimmer Mack Horton (left) refuses to share the podium with Chinese gold medallist Sun Yang at the 2019 FINA World Championships last month.
Credit: AP Photo / Mark Schiefelbein

Australia has a new “bad guy” in the fight against drugs in sport – Swimming Australia.

The sport’s governing body has been blamed for mishandling news of a positive drug test on the eve of July’s FINA World Championships, effectively putting clean-sport crusader and Rio 2016 Olympics gold medallist Mack Horton into a glass house while he threw stones at “drug cheats” from other nations.

All the while Swimming Australia was aware that Horton’s teammate Shayna Jack had been sent home from a training camp prior to the championships for returning a positive sample. The team had been told Jack’s sudden departure was for “personal reasons”.

However, Swimming Australia’s hands were tied.  Only the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority or the athlete involved has the right to make doping details public. Swimming Australia had signed over its rights to ASADA, as have numerous other sports that are now presumably re-reading the finer details in case one day they are confronted with their own Shayna Jack scenario and being falsely accused of a “cover-up”.

Having been boxed into a corner, the president of Swimming Australia, John Bertrand, has been deflecting some of the heat by focusing on how the story initially leaked. Bertrand alleges he knows where it came from, telling radio station Triple M “it was certainly leaked after Mack did his thing”.

Mack Horton’s “thing” was his one-man protest, refusing to stand on the podium to receive his silver medal after finishing second to his long-time 400-metre freestyle rival, China’s Sun Yang.

The Chinese swimmer was cleared of a doping charge late in 2018 but is waiting for an appeal hearing lodged at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

But these bare facts don’t do justice to the full story in an anti-doping environment that is described as complex at best, and draconian at worst.

Horton supports a zero-tolerance approach to doping, as do Swimming Australia and others, with the most ardent calling for lifetime bans for any doping offence. Shayna Jack’s positive sample has tested the resolve of those inside Australian swimming calling for the harshest of penalties for others, while arguing for the presumption of innocence for their own.

 

Australia has a long and complex relationship with China – not just economically and politically but also in sport, particularly in swimming.

Sun’s coach is Australian Denis Cotterell, recognised as one of the world’s best. He trained a number of Chinese swimmers, including Sun Yang, at his former Gold Coast base until he was encouraged to sever ties with the Chinese over Swimming Australia’s doping concerns.

In 2014 Sun tested positive to a drug he’d been prescribed for a well-documented, ongoing heart condition. The drug had been listed on the WADA banned list only five months earlier and his doctor failed to get an authorisation known as a Therapeutic Use Exemption.

This was viewed as a “no-fault” positive and Sun was given a three-month suspension. His doctor, who should have been more attentive, was suspended for 12 months.

A few months later the drug was downgraded after it was found not to be performance enhancing when taken on its own. The Chinese were allowed to return to the Gold Coast under new conditions – paying Swimming Australia a fee to ensure they were tested by ASADA while training in the country.

 

Horton began protesting the inclusion of “drug cheats” back at the Rio Olympic Games, where he referred to Sun specifically while sitting alongside him at a pre-race press conference.

At the recent world championships it continued with Horton later telling Australia’s Olympic broadcaster, Channel Seven, “Athletes who are under investigation should not be competing at the world championships”, intimating that Sun is under investigation.

He is not.

Sun was investigated and cleared, although that finding is being appealed by WADA and is due to be heard at the CAS next month.

Media reports of smashed blood vials proving cheating are simplistic and were investigated at length by a three-person tribunal, which exonerated the swimmer.

The 60-plus-page tribunal findings have been published and can be read for a full understanding of the case, which is too detailed to go into here.

If, as Horton suggested, those who have fallen foul of the anti-doping code should be banned from competing at international events, then the same should have been applied to his teammate Thomas Fraser-Holmes.

He was one of three Australian swimmers who failed to show for three out-of-competition tests over a 12-month period. The other two were Jarrod Poort and Madeline Groves.

Avoiding drug testers three times in a calendar year is akin to testing positive in the eyes of the strict anti-doping regime. Fraser-Holmes and Poort served 12-month bans while Groves was let off after it was determined the drug testers had not done enough to locate her on the third occasion. Despite skating on thin ice, Groves has also been vocal in the Sun Yang affair but has said little about her Dolphins teammates.

 

When news broke on the final weekend of the world championships of Jack’s positive test, Australian shock quickly gave way to sympathy.

The news left Horton exposed. He refused to answer whether he remained committed to a zero-tolerance approach. Now he says even if he had known about Jack’s failed drug test he still would have gone ahead with his podium protest.

“I think the difference being as soon as she returns a positive sample, she’s returned to Australia, she’s not competing at a world championships and that gives me faith in the Australian system and that Australians demand clean sport,” says Horton. “We won’t let our own athletes get away with it and, because we won’t let our own athletes get away with it, we can question and demand more from the rest of the world.”

This view from Horton that Australia is operating under a different system to others has also been put forward in interviews given by Bertrand, and Swimming Australia’s chief executive, Leigh Russell.

The view is wrong.

Shayna Jack and Sun Yang swim internationally under the same system.

When an athlete tests positive they have the right to challenge the result and present evidence hoping to prove their innocence. Either an independent tribunal or the CAS will hear the evidence. The athlete will either be exonerated or charged; the charges can range from a “no-fault positive” minimum suspension through to a maximum four-year ban.

To allege Sun was competing at the world championships while under investigation is wrong. His case was completed and he had been exonerated. The fact that an appeal lodged by WADA has not yet been held at the CAS does not prevent an exonerated athlete from competing.

In the same way, if Jack is exonerated from her anti-doping charge following an investigation she will be free to compete at the Tokyo Olympics next year – even if WADA decides to appeal the findings and the appeal has not yet been heard.

This means Sun and Jack – China and Australia – compete under exactly the same system.

 

In Australia there is a widely held view that this country is leading the charge for clean sport while other nations are involved in dodging testers and orchestrating cover-ups.

Countries such as Russia, China and the former East Germany have had systemic drug programs exposed in the past. While suspicion will remain, alleging guilt through nationality is unjust and Australia’s “fair-go” reputation has taken a hit.

BBC headlined its coverage with “Shayna Jack: the swimming scandal that has embarrassed Australia”.

China’s state-run media alleged the swimming saga threatened the country-to-country relationship, saying: “Imprudent and pointless attacks on China will definitely be detrimental to relations that are in a recovery mode.”

Several articles have made mention of Australia’s cheating cricketers. Names such as Ian Thorpe and Sam Riley have popped up, historical cases where champion Australian swimmers were caught in their own anti-doping dramas only to be – just like Sun – exonerated.

When Australians are exonerated, the system has worked; when others are exonerated, the system has apparently failed.

There are more than 60 people in Australia currently serving doping sanctions from almost 20 sports. But ask most on the street today to name a drug cheat and it’s unlikely they’ll name an Australian.

Sometimes the bad guys are not who you think they are.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Hypocrisy and bad blood". Subscribe here.

Tracey Holmes
is a journalist and presenter for ABC News.