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Mack Horton's stance is about much more than a problem with Sun Yang

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23rd July, 2019
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The podium is no stranger to athletes taking a stand in protest.

The 1968 ‘black power’ salute was the most famous of them all, with Australian silver medallist Peter Norman wearing a civil rights badge in solidarity.

Norman’s action was met with a mixed response at the time. Ultimately though, he was vindicated and even celebrated.

Mack Horton recently decided to take a stand against doping by not using the podium, which has divided opinion.

His actions are no doubt a result of not just his overall feelings about doping in sport but his frustration at how it’s affected his personal achievements.

That should not take away the merit or credibility of his stance.

I applaud and admire what was really a measured and controlled form of protest. Like the ‘black power’ salute, it was passive but had maximum impact.

However, there have been claims of ungraciousness and disrespect, including from Australian Richard Ings, who is the former ASADA chief executive. Via Twitter, Ings said he was “no fan of Sun Yang”, but went on to write that the Chinese swimmer is innocent until proven guilty and that “Not standing on the podium with him should attract a hefty penalty”.

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Ings’ statement that FINA cleared Yang is correct. Yet, his wish that Horton should be penalised demonstrates a clear chasm between administrators and the expectations of clean athletes.

Much like in a society where criminals are freed after serving sentences determined by judges within the confines of legislative limitations, the public is not always satisfied. There is often frustration, born of fear of reoffence, that the punishment did not fit the crime, or in sentencing inconsistencies.

The world of sport and doping are no different. Penalties need to be tougher and more consistent, regardless of the sport.

In 2014, Yang was banned for three months by Chinese Swimming for testing positive to trimetazidine at their nationals, a stimulant which Yang claims was prescribed for heart palpitations.

The ban was not reported to WADA until after it was served. Nonetheless, WADA still had the right to appeal but chose not to proceed.

Perceptions that Yang was protected by a soft-handed association are hard to refute. Compare that to the International Tennis Federation’s 15-month ban for Maria Sharapova in a comparable case.

Thankfully in Sharapova’s case, the ITF was there to protect the integrity of the tennis.

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Maria Sharapova of Russia

AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Perhaps more frustrating is that Yang has an ongoing case, wherein he actively inhibited a doping test at his home and even smashed vials of his drawn blood. His arguments were technical and, for most, unsatisfactory. The frustrations of athletes such as Horton are more than understandable.

FINA issued a warning and allowed Yang to compete at the World Championships, despite WADA this time electing to take the case to the courts as they want a more severe punishment. However, the court case isn’t scheduled until September this year, allowing Yang to compete in South Korea.

For Horton, who does the correct thing in terms of training, competing and behaving inside the parameters of regulatory requirements, his actions are both justifiable and brave.

I hope all principled athletes, viewers and administrators support Horton and request reform. To not would be to support the unacceptable status quo.

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Yang’s mere presence at the swim meet underscores an issue with international swimming regarding doping controls and sanctions, remembering that non-compliance with testers is a doping violation in itself.

FINA and to an extent WADA have brought this on themselves.

Mack Horton’s defiance should not only be viewed in protest of cheating but the international sporting bodies and doping agencies who fail to protect clean athletes.