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Can doping ever be an innocent mistake?

Park Taehwan has been banned for 18 months by FINA. Was he a victim, or a liar? (Republic of Korea / Flickr)
Roar Guru
25th March, 2015
10
2282 Reads

Swimmers Park Tae-hwan, Sun Yang and Cesar Cielo tested positive for various substances recently. However, upon closer inspection, these cases are not as clear cut as some would believe.

There is more than a slight sense of deja vu about Park Tae-hwan’s failed drug test.

The shocked denial, the management company issuing glowing character references, and following these up with threats of litigation against the doctor.

It’s all tiringly familiar.

Park, a South Korean middle-distance freestyle specialist who’s claimed four Olympic medals (one gold, three silver) and three World Championship medals, including two golds in the 400 metres freestyle, tested positive for testosterone at the Asian Championships in September, and has been banned for 18 months by FINA.

Park’s management company (Team GMP) released a statement in January stating that Park was injected by a doctor while seeking chiropractic treatment, despite being assured the injection did not contain illegal substances.

The statement went on to refute that Park would take performance enhancing drugs, “As a world class swimmer, Park Tae-hwan has been extremely careful about what he takes, and he hasn’t even taken cold medicine so that he wouldn’t fail doping tests… Park is more shocked by this result than anyone else.”

Team GMP also said they “hold (the hospital) civilly and criminally liable” for this failed test.

Immediately following the judgement, Park’s agency released a short statement saying, “Park Tae-hwan and his agency would like to sincerely apologise for the positive drug test result and for disappointing those who continue to support Park.”

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So guilty as charged then? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The statement suggests Park has accepted responsibility and will not appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – which he has 21 days to do – contradicting reports coming out of Seoul that prosecutors have indicted the doctor on charges of professional negligence.

Suing the doctor – on the grounds that he didn’t disclose the name, ingredients or side effects of the shot administered despite Park’s questions – suggests that although Park is absolving himself of taking drugs knowingly, he is accepting responsibility for the drugs being in his system.

Regardless of whether Park accepts the judgement or not, there have been other recent cases of doping in swimming that would suggest there is a problem in the sport. Yet those cases reveal the problems with outright condemnation.

Sun Yang, China
Sun Yang exploded to prominence at the 2010 Asian Games by coming within a second of beating Grant Hackett’s long-standing 1500 metre world record. He went on to claim that record, winning the 2012 Olympic gold medal by over eight seconds in London. There he also took home the gold in the 400 metres freestyle, and tied for silver in the 200 metres freestyle with the aforementioned Park.

In May 2014, the Chinese freestyle sensation was reportedly banned for three months after testing positive for the banned stimulant trimetazidine, supposedly as a result of medication taken for a heart condition.

The controversy sparked people’s interest because CHINADA (Chinese Anti-Doping Authority) did not report the failed test, or subsequent ban, until after it had been served. As a result of the failed test, Sun Yang’s astonishing performances were called into question, and he was even banned from training in Australia.

However, this case is not as clear cut as swimmer takes illegal stimulant, gets caught, gets short ban based on a half-baked excuse from sympathetic national board, carries on as normal.

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In Swimming World Magazine’s analysis of the case, they reveal Sun Yang was suffering from chest pains three days before the Chinese Nationals – where he won, and was later stripped of the 1500m freestyle. As mentioned earlier, trimetazidine is used to treat heart conditions, and there is ample evidence – according to CHINADA – that Sun Yang was genuinely ill and had a legitimate medical reason for taking that particular drug.

Taking a banned substance to deal with a medical condition is not illegal, however failing to report it is. When Sun Yang submitted his in-competition sample to the doping authorities they detected traces of trimetazidine and failed him.

To muddy the waters even further, as of January 1 2015 trimetazidine is no longer be on the WADA in-competition banned list, having been reclassified and downgraded.

There is no doubt that Sun Yang was in the wrong about not reporting his medication, but the firestorm and secrecy surrounding his failed test means he will always carry the tag of suspicion.

Cesar Cielo – Brazil
Unfortunately the controversy doesn’t end there. Brazilian sprinter Cesar Cielo was only given a warning after testing positive for furosemide in 2011. Furosemide is a diuretic, but is also commonly used as a masking agent for other drugs.

Cielo claimed cross contamination with a caffeine supplement, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport agreed.

The ruling was greeted with disappointment from plenty of Cielo’s competitors, especially after the Brazilian came away with two gold medals in the 50 metre free and 50 metre fly at the 2011 World Championships. However, the reality of this situation is that the CAS agreed with Cielo that the contaminated sample was accidental and not an attempt to mask any performance enhancing drugs.

In other words, they took his word for it.

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Unfortunately, history would suggest that was an incorrect call. Doping cases in Brazilian aquatics have skyrocketed, with 22 reported cases since 2009 (as detailed in this article) suggesting that doping is becoming as big a problem in Brazilian swimming as it is in Russian.

So is Park Tae-Hwan justified in feeling dismayed at his failed test, when he supposedly knew nothing about the substance? Or have the actions of other drug cheats tarnished the reputations of all athletes, and as a result there is no leeway for any honest mistakes?

How are athletes meant to know if a batch of supplements has been contaminated? Moreover, are the methods of reporting medication so complex and ever changing that it is unrealistic to expect these athletes to know the ins and outs of the rules so that they never get caught?

In a team environment, you could argue that with the myriad of doctors and advisors monitoring your every move, it should be impossible to be caught out. But it does happen. Just ask Ryan Crowley and Ahmed Saad.

In an individual sport though, where athletes tend not to have the full-time support of trained doctors, are these mistakes more likely to happen?

John Ruger, the U.S. Olympic Committee Ombudsman stated in 2013 that “between 40 per cent to 60 per cent of positive test doping results were inadvertent (non-deliberate) cases.”

Is this a true reflection of positive tests? Or does sports recent doping history suspend any right for athletes to have our unwavering trust? And if it is true, is their’s a justifiable sacrifice in the fight for clean sport?

There are plenty of variables that could account for a failed doping test, but unfortunately there is simply no way of telling who is telling the truth, and who is lying.

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Park Tae-hwan’s squeaky-clean image is irreparably damaged, and the man known in Korea as ‘Marine Boy’ has seen his world collapse.

So should errors in judgement be treated as severely as outright cheating? Unfortunately, for now, yes.

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