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Swimmer protests at the World Championships renew calls for urgent anti-doping reforms

Australian swimmer Mack Horton (left) refused to step on the podium after he was beaten by controversial Chinese star Sun Yang. Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

When Chinese swimmer Sun Yang recently won his fourth gold medal for the 400 metres freestyle alongside another gold in the 200 metres freestyle at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, his achievements were overshadowed by fellow competitors who refused to stand on the podium with him.

First Australian silver medallist Mack Horton in the 400 metres and then British bronze medallist Duncan Scott in the 200 metres freestyle. Horton and Swimming Australia have since been officially warned by the international swimming federation FINA, for the protest. Both athletes have also been subject to online abuse and death threats for their actions.

This is not the first time Horton has protested against Yang, who was previously been suspended by the China Anti-Doping Agency in 2014 – and is under investigation again after Yang’s bodyguard allegedly smashed his blood vial sample with a hammer during an out-of-competition doping test at Yang’s home in China. Yang said the incident happened because he believed the doping control officer was not properly accredited.

A FINA tribunal has since ruled that, although smashing blood vials is not advisable, Yang did not commit an anti-doping rule violation as the officer was not fully qualified. But the World Anti-Doping Agency has not accepted these findings and is currently appealing the case in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The incident has renewed suspicions about Yang, who previously served a three month suspension in 2014 for the prohibited substance trimetazidine. This is a stimulant usually used to treat patients suffering from angina. Yang claimed he was unaware the drug had been added to the banned list, and had been using it since 2008 to treat heart palpitations.

Varying testing conditions

Horton’s dad has spoken out to explain that the protests from his son and others came from frustration at the perceived lack of consistency internationally in the way athletes are treated when it comes to testing.

This is in part due to the fact that the World Anti-Doping Agency relies on World Anti-Doping Code signatories, such as international federations and national anti-doping organisations, to implement and enforce the rules. Yet, between signatories there is disparity in the resources available, technical expertise and commitment. This means that athletes in different regions are subject to varying testing conditions.

Research has shown the impact this disparity can have on the views of athletes. A study of 645 elite Danish athletes, for example, found that 85% of them believed that “doping control is downgraded [by officials] in certain countries because medals have higher priority”. Almost half of the athletes also believed that “doping control in other countries is sometimes so unprofessional that it is possible to cheat”.

And as the case of Yang and Horton highlights, this difference in anti-doping conditions between nations can lead to a sense of injustice between athletes. It can also impact how athletes feel about testing in rival nations.

Innocent until proven guilty?

It appears then that Yang’s high-profile success has made him a symbolic target for frustration at the system. But it also shows how the label of drugs cheat is not easily shaken off.

Indeed, US sprinter Justin Gatlin served two separate bans for doping and was booed at the 2017 World Championships. Likewise, some still have suspicions about British cyclist Chris Froome after it was leaked that he had produced an adverse analytical finding, even though he was later cleared of any wrongdoing. Yang also seems to be subject to the same treatment.

Burden of proof on the prosecutor, and rehabilitation through punishment are characteristics of democratic societies. Yet when it comes to doping, it appears athletes remain chastised by competitors and the public – even after serving bans. Suspicions can even remain in place for those who have been found not guilty.

Sun Yang is considered by some to be the greatest freestyle swimmer of all time. Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Yang served his previous suspension and was found innocent of any wrongdoing by FINA. So in smashing his blood test and questioning the accreditation of the officer, he did not demand anything that is not expected in any other facet of society – that authorities follow correct procedure.

Indeed, every athlete should have the right to be treated according to correct procedure given the severe repercussions of anti-doping rule violations. And Yang’s case highlights the need to reevaluate how we protect those accused of anti-doping violations as well as how to rehabilitate athletes.

The athlete movement

There has been pressure on the World Anti-Doping Agency from multiple sportspeople and organisations to increase the input of athletes in anti-doping governance. British Paralympian Ali Jawad, for example, released The Alternative, a document setting out his proposal World Anti-Doping Agency governance reforms.

Similarly, AthletesCan, the organisation responsible for representing Canadian athletes, the National Anti-Doping Organisations and The Reformers, an international collective of politically active athletes, have all released statements demanding greater representation for athletes.

Given then the support Horton has received from other swimmers, such protests exemplify the need for increased athlete representation on the World Anti-Doping executive committee to make decisions on their behalf.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has acknowledged this and said it is willing to strengthen the athlete voice in decision making. But that this will only happen when athletes can determine a method to nominate a representative that adequately represents the cultural and sporting diversity of athletes under the World Anti-Doping Agency umbrella. Which is clearly quite the task, given the issue is so fraught with geopolitical tensions.

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