Legendary US Olympian Michael Phelps supports Australian Mack Horton’s anti-doping protest but doubts FINA will change their ways any time soon.
Phelps is watching the world championships from afar, enjoying his ever-growing family while tackling the challenges of life after swimming.
But the the most successful athlete in Olympic history is still passionate about the sport that meant so much to his life.
And he still gets angry when the subject turns to the scourge of doping.
“No one cares. No one wants to do anything about it,” said Phelps, his voice rising on the other end of the line Friday when reached during breakfast at his Arizona home.
The issue has taken on a new sense of urgency at the FINA world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, where Chinese star Sun Yang was allowed to compete – and collect a couple of gold medals – even after reports that he smashed a vial of blood with a hammer when drug testers showed up at his home to take a sample.
FINA decided to let Sun off with a warning, which essentially meant no punishment at all for what should be an egregious violation of doping rules – especially since the swimmer already tested positive in 2014 for a banned substance.
Sun still faces a hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport that could lead to major sanctions, but the lack of action by a governing body that has long been viewed as laughably inept and mainly concerned with making sure all the checks clear prompted two swimmers to take a bold stance in Gwangju.
Australia’s Mack Horton, a longtime rival of Sun, refused to take a spot on the medal stand after finishing second to him in the 400m freestyle.
Britain’s Duncan Scott did the same after settling for a bronze medal in the 200m freestyle, also won by Sun.
Phelps, who has said he never felt like he swam a final that didn’t include at least one doped-up swimmer, can understand the frustration expressed by Horton and Scott.
On the other hand, he doubts their dramatic gesture will have any real impact.
“I love how people are standing up and voicing their opinion,” Phelps said.
“But at the end of the day, there’s only one person, only one group of people who can really change this. That’s FINA. When FINA wants to do something, wants to change how this sport is seen after all these positive drug tests that are occurring, after all this controversy, maybe they’ll do something about it. It’s in their hands, in their control.’
FINA has shown no eagerness to aggressively tackle the doping issue.
In fact, the organisation hastily added rules to its code of conduct that were designed to stifle the sort of silent protests taken by Horton and Scott, showing they’re more concerned with punishing those who complain than those who might be seeking a chemically enhanced edge.
While encouraged by the efforts to form a swimmers union, which would give the athletes a greater say in the way the sport is run, Phelps isn’t so keen on individual protests like the ones seen in Gwangju.
He wonders if Horton and Scott undermined their own performances by focusing too much on Sun.
“When your energy goes into that, it takes away from your swimming,” Phelps said.
“I was very clear how frustrated I was that people chose to use performance-enhancing drugs instead of preparing themselves, putting in the work and putting in the training and doing what it takes to be a champion instead of taking the easy way out. But I wasn’t going to waste my time and my energy to focus on somebody else and what they were doing. That was out of my control.”
Clearly, that approach worked well for Phelps. He won 23 Olympics golds, and 28 medals overall, before retiring after the 2016 Rio Games.
Phelps says he supports a one-and-done philosophy for dopers, believing anyone who tests positive should automatically receive a lifetime ban.
He’ll keep pushing those in charge to do the right thing, while remaining realistic about the prospects for any significant change.