Keeping the waters clean

Keeping the waters clean

In the lead-up to the Olympics, the world swimming championships were nearly passed over by the media, until a silent protest from an Aussie swimmer

The lead up to this week’s world swimming championships in Gwanju caused barely a ripple in the media, to the extent that there was no live coverage on free-to-air or pay TV. It’s ironic then, at this relatively routine swimming meet, that the murky subject of drug cheating was highlighted to the world in a manner that it hasn’t quite been before. We should know by now that nothing in sport is routine.

Mack Horton’s quietly powerful gesture in refusing to stand on the podium after the 400- metre freestyle final as a protest against the validity of rival Sun Yang’s victory was the first act of a compelling two-part drama. It concluded when the Chinese swimmer shredded the last remaining standards of basic sportsmanship by eyeballing British freestyle swimmer Duncan Scott and lashing him with an ‘I’m the winner’ response to Scott’s refusal to be photographed or shake hands with the Chinese world champion after the 200 metres freestyle. An act of solidarity with Horton.

Using the normally sacred space of the medal podium to make their silent statement implies also that swimming’s governing body, FINA, doesn’t do and probably has never done enough to keep the sport clean. Clean is another word for fair. The Chinese freestyler, a six-time Olympic medallist, is now a lightning rod for a subject with very deep waters

Deep waters

Horton and Scott believe that Sun Yang doesn’t follow the rules in relation to the use of performance-enhancing drugs and used the normally sacred place of the medal podium to make their silent statement. Implied also in their protest is the idea that swimming’s governing body, FINA, doesn’t do and probably has never done enough to keep the sport clean. Clean is another word for fair. The Chinese freestyler, a six-time Olympic medallist, is now a lightning rod for a subject with very deep waters. No pun intended!

The Sun Yang mentality

Sports lovers have long had to accept that many of the jaw-dropping moments in the pool, on the track and elsewhere in our lifetimes haven’t been the outcome of doing things the right way: through sacrifice, dedication and a single-minded quest for self-improvement. Rather, they’ve been the result of a single-minded devotion to the one thing that only seems to matter at top-level sport: winning. The Sun Yang mentality. How you win is where the sorry crossover between the noblest ideals of sport and cheating occur. Horton, Scott and millions of sports fans who never have never had and never will have access to the podium at a major championship have a moment of spontaneous protest to refer to.

It’s all a bit embarrassing for the people in suits who run these sports and want us to believe in them as the gatekeepers of the highest standards.

The Thorpe era

I’m my book Around the Grounds I write that the most impressive individual sportsperson I’ve ever seen live was Ian Thorpe. At the world championship swimming trials in March of ’01 in Hobart, Thorpe was in his post-Sydney Olympics prime and simply unbeatable in the water, that dark body length swimsuit his only outside help. He just ate up the laps of the 50-metre pool with those loping smooth strokes. At the start of the new century you wanted to believe the worst of the doping/cheating era of the 70s/80s/90s was over. Thorpe represented what we could all hope for.

Nearly twenty years on the Thorpe era is a part of history but, sadly, questions as to the validity of the sport are not.

Overshadowed by controversy

In the Tasmanian media this week another interesting question has arisen from the pool in Gwanju. Was the win of Ariarne Titmus in the 800-metre freestyle (and toppling American great Katie Ledecky, in the process no less) the greatest individual performance by a Tasmanian sportsperson? (Titmus left Tassie at the age of 15 to pursue her career in Brisbane.)

Despite the tense and riveting drama of the podium politics surrounding Sun Yang, sports lovers, the media and the general population actually want, even need, stories to believe in, athletes to add to the grand pantheon, reference points for the future.

Labyrinth of governing bodies

Despite the tense and riveting drama of the podium politics surrounding Sun Yang, sports lovers, the media and the general population actually want, even need, stories to believe in, athletes to add to the grand pantheon, reference points for the future.

Somewhere in the labyrinth of governing bodies, courts of arbitration and other nobly intentioned organisations there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. We can measure time in the water to within one thousandth of a second. The acrimony and unscripted theatre out of the water at these world championships is much harder to control and tells us that there are so many greater forces at play. Working out who is the right winner is becoming increasingly complex and political as the years go by.

No doubt the greater audience will continue to watch on breathlessly to see what happens next…

Peter Newlinds – Author of Around the Grounds

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