Treading water: Swimming’s drug problem

Empty podiums, failed tests and smashed blood vials, the world of swimming has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. With multiple swimmers being exposed for – or accused of – doping in recent years, international swimming organisations are under increasing pressure to tackle the issue which has been rife in the sport for some time.

In light of recent events involving China’s Sun Yang and Australian swimmer Shayna Jack, it’s clear much more needs to be done.

It’s not often someone wins gold twice in the world championships and still gets attention for all the wrong reasons, but such is the case for Chinese male swimmer Sun Yang. In 2014 Yang failed a drug test and copped a three-month ban from competition, leaving the door open for a controversial 2016 Olympic Games appearance.

More recently, in September 2018 he and fellow Chinese teammates smashed blood vials after being tested by International Swimming Federation (FINA) representatives, receiving wide coverage and opposition from multiple countries.

A FINA anti-doping tribunal decided that because their representatives failed to follow mandatory procedure, Yang wouldn’t be banned for the serious allegation of refusing doping control. The World Anti-Doping Agency hasn’t accepted this and is appealing the decision in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Just two weeks ago Yang won gold in the 200m and 400m freestyle events at the World Swimming Championships. The response to this was huge. British swimmer Duncan Scott and Australian Mack Horton refused to take the podium with Sun Yang – or shake hands – in protest, whipping national and global media into a frenzy.

Even more recently, 20-year-old Australian swimmer Shayna Jack tested positive to banned substance Ligandrol and now faces a potential four-year ban. The public backlash hasn’t been anywhere near that of Yang, but it is important to note that her fate is still yet to be decided. She denies knowing she was ingesting the substance and continues to face tribunal.

Regardless, the issue is clear and the message is obvious, swimmers are fed up with doping and want the sport’s bodies to crack down harder.

As ex-Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) chief Richard Ings said in a statement last week, “the public, the media and, most importantly, the athletes have lost patience with anti-doping efforts. Our trust has been eroded and our scepticism at sporting performance is sky-high.”

There have been 62 known cases of doping or avoiding testing in swimming, with four of these being Australians: Thomas Fraser-Holmes, Kylie Palmer, Samantha Riley and Shayna Jack.

So, what needs to be done? In a perfect world swimmers would unanimously avoid doping all together, but failing that it’s high time the sport’s governing bodies whipped things into shape.

The fundamental problem in tackling doping in swimming is the lack of consistency in the testing regime, a factor which according to Horton’s father was the catalyst behind his protest. The problem is generated by the fact the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) relies on anti-doping signatories (international and national anti-doping organisations) to enforce rules and testing.

This means there can be discrepancies in test conditions between signatories in different nations when it comes to resources, commitment and expertise, an issue highlighted in the case of the officers who tested Yang in 2018.

In addition to this, there is also a belief among athletes that “doping control (is) often downgraded in order to win medals”, which would surely also result in control being easier to avoid altogether.

The fact that disparities in drug testing like this exist in a sport which can be decided by milliseconds is inexcusable and is impacting the way athletes feel about each other and the issue at large.

There’s also a dire need for transparency from bodies like FINA and Swimming Australia.

It’s become apparent over the past week that Swimming Australia knew about Shayna Jack’s failed test two weeks before she herself revealed the information on social media. The body has since claimed it was required to keep the matter confidential “until ASADA has completed its investigations.”

Richard Ings has since disputed this, saying that “if Swimming Australia are suggesting that their anti-doping policy, approved by ASADA, forbids them from announcing the Jack provisional suspension, they are wrong.”

This is a massive issue. National bodies should be informing FINA of any positive tests for banned substances in order for due course to be taken. Swimming Australia and other major bodies need to be completely transparent and 100% committed to tackling this issue and eliminating doping.

FINA also needs to be more transparent if doping is to be eradicated in the sport.

While its prohibited list demonstrates great transparency and is continually updated with athletes or their teams being notified immediately, FINE needs to work with WADA, ASADA and other bodies to develop a more clearly-defined set of rules and regulations around the punishments for and testings of drug use.

Yang’s original suspension in 2014 by FINA was shortened to just three months because he was found to be taking a banned substance for heart problems. FINA and other governing bodies need to agree on and clearly stipulate which acts will register a certain length or severity of suspension.

They also need to ensure there isn’t any disparity between national bodies on how doping tests are conducted and responded to, to create an environment of clarity where cracking down on the issue becomes easier.

Whether you agree or disagree with Scott and Horton’s to take the podium with Sun Yang, it’s clear the current environment of doping in swimming creates an unfair performance divide between athletes and seems to be turning athletes, and maybe even countries, against each other.

FINA and other major bodies need to step up, stay transparent and tighten the overall testing regime or doping will remain an issue almost impossible to overcome.

If they can’t ­– or rather won’t – this cycle of empty podiums and doping scandals will remain a blight on what is a truly fantastic sport.  

Image by Rachael Sharman

sports editor