It sounded like a rumour that could only be qualified as ridiculous, and
yet the list of doping bloopers grew one longer when the unthinkable happened:
an Australian swimmer tested positive for a banned substance.
And not just any Australian: Samantha Riley, the best breaststroker in the
world. Defender of four world championship titles (short and long course)
and holder of three world records, Riley tested positive at the 1995 Short
Course Worlds in Rio for dextropropoxyphene, a narcotic analgesic.
When the news leaked in early February, the Australian Swimming Federation
was forced to come out with the unfortunate truth. Immediately press conferences
and interviews abounded, and all of Australia jumped to Riley's defence.
One could accuse her of being too naive they said, but not of cheating...
We probably tend to imagine that world record-holders do everything right.
Well they don't. After the upset of her disqualification in the 100 breaststroke
for an illegal kick at last summer's Pan Pacific Championships in Atlanta,
it seemed that Riley was down on her luck. Herself an unfaltering advocate
in the fight against doping, she suddenly found herself pleading for clemency
in a case of the "wrong" pill.
"The biggest mistake of my life"
The story is as follows: In the ten days leading up to Rio, Riley was suffering
from headaches. She tried everything from massage to physiotherapy, but
nothing would make them go away. Two nights before her first race she complained
to her coach, Scott Volkers, that her head was still bothering her. Volkers
decided not to call the team doctor because it was 10:30 pm and the doctor
was on another floor. Instead he told her he would give her something and
fished some Di-Gesic tablets out of his bag. The tablets were the last of
a prescription for Volkers' wife and had been sitting in his bag for three
years. He had used them himself for headache and gave a tablet to Riley,
who thought he was giving her a Panadol. When they learned of the positive
test in early January, they couldn't figure out what had happened. It then
occurred to Volkers that he had given Riley the substance in question. In
his words, "I made the biggest mistake of my life."
Mistake indeed. The facts are so lukewarm as to be believable.
And yet it is hard to believe that one of the world's top coaches could
give his star athlete someone else's expired prescription, no matter how
bad the headache was. If the headaches had been nagging for so long why
did Riley not consult the team doctor? Coach Volkers claimed he was "the
moron" and was ready to take the blame. Riley claimed that the drug
in no way enhanced her performance, and that she was not a cheat. And after
all the fuss the Aussies had made over the Chinese, the timing could not
have been worse.
The affair went to FINA and the speculation began. One thing was sure: for
one of their highest Olympic hopes, Australians in high places were ready
to pull strings and downright apply the necessary pressure to get her off.
Kevan Gosper, Australian Vice President of the International Olympic Committee,
went straight to the head of the IOC Medical Commission, the Prince de Mérode
of Belgium, and asked him to intervene on Riley's behalf. Given the endless
grief Australian Swimming had given FINA for what it considered FINA's lack
of commitment in the anti-doping movement, some worried that FINA would
make an example of Riley in order to get even. But the threat of a two-year
penalty never seemed very real for Riley. While Australian Head Coach Don
Talbot was pushing for a penalty for Volkers, most figured Riley would get
off with three months.
As expected, it didn't take FINA long to decide on Riley's fate. "Considering
the facts related to this case," went the press release, "and
that the presence of the proscribed agent had no potential to enhance her
performance or give her an unfair advantage, the FINA Executive decided
to sanction her with a STRONG WARNING..." Volkers, on the other hand,
got a two -year suspension from all swimming activities dating from December
In the usual mire of inconsistency, there are several things to consider.
First of all one wonders, if the drug in question really couldn't do anything
to help her performance, then why is it banned? A narcotic analgesic is
a painkiller and to give Riley her due, it is highly unlikely that she would
knowingly take anything two days before her race when the chances were about
99% she would be tested. Had Riley wanted to cheat (and we're all convinced
she didn't), two days before the race was not the time to do it. So we buy
the story. And yet narcotic analgesics are on the list of banned substances
and carry a two-year ban.
To further cloud the issue, Australia's representative on the IOC Medical
Commission, Dr. Ken Fitch, was quoted as saying that the two-year rule had
never been enforced for taking a narcotic. "There have been quite a
few athletes who have gone positive for this kind of drug but the IOC has
never sanctioned any of them," he said. Riley, coming from a country
famous for its anti-drug crusade, was yet another exception to an apparently
Indeed, if the issue of doping were not so serious, the events of the past
year would make good comic strip material.
January 1995: marathon swimmer Anne Chagnaud of France has her mid-race
energy drink spiked by a lovelorn coach desirous of vengeance. She tests
positive for etilefrine, a cardiac accelerator that has precious little
effect on performance over a 9-hour event. Her coach takes the blame. Chagnaud
pleads innocent but gets a two-year suspension from FINA. Her appeal to
FINA is subsequently denied, despite the fact that she has the full support
of the French Swimming Federation.
August 1995: 14-year-old American Jessica Foschi tests positive for steroids
(mesterolone) that have mysteriously found their way into her urine. She
claims she was sabotaged (by whom, we have no idea) and gets a two-year
probation from a U.S. Swimming review panel. The move is heavily criticized
(by the Australians!) and U.S. Swimming President Carol Zaleski appeals
the decision. While the attention is rivetted on Riley, the U.S. Swimming
Federation suspends Foschi for two years. She promptly appeals that decision.
Then comes Riley, who takes a headache tablet without checking the label.
Two days later she sets a world record. Because of who she is FINA gets
a workover and the resulting sanction is a "strong warning"...proving
that there is a set of rules for the stars and a set of rules for the rest
of the crowd.
Chagnaud, waiting out her two year suspension and finishing a Phys. Ed.
degree in Paris, commented on the decision. "It is upsetting because
it seems the sanctions are different depending on who you know and where
you're from...I obviously don't know enough guys on top! But on the other
hand, this decision puts people like Foschi and me in a better position."
She was right; the ink had barely dried on the Riley announcement when U.S.
Swimming went back on its decision for Foschi, lifting the suspension in
favour of the original probation, and thereby allowing her to compete in
the U.S. Olympic Trials in March. No doubt the threat of legal action had
U.S. Swimming more than a little nervous. Foschi was prepared to play hardball
with a hot-shot lawyer (the same one used by Nancy Kerrigan in the Harding
affair) and take her case as far as the Supreme Court if necessary. The
Riley decision gave them the perfect way out; if they were easy on Riley,
we can be easy on Foschi...so much for the rule book.
The mind boggles
For several years the U.S. and Australian federations have been relentlessly
plugging for tougher drug sanctions, and yet when their own swimmer is concerned,
the same rules don't apply. What's more, FINA (no doubt after further pressure)
changed their tune regarding Volkers' suspension, which now limits his suspension
to international competitions. He can carry on his coaching activities in
Australia; let's not forget that the careers of top swimmers Susan O'Neill,
Elli Overton, and Angela Kennedy would be endangered by his suspension.
The word is that he'll be in Atlanta, communicating from the stands with
sign language. In other words, a ban that is not a ban. Whether right or
wrong, the damage is done, and the leniency displayed with Riley has set
a precedent that will no doubt be cited for years to come. Foschi's case
is still to be reviewed by FINA, but any decision made by the bumbling federation
will now seem totally arbitrary.
And consider for a moment the plight of FINA in this never-ending string
of "mishaps"; the last thing they want is to have to can the athletes.
There are rules, and then there are politics. Is all this wishy-washiness
just to disguise the fact that Big Brother IOC is really calling the shots?
Unfortunately, because of the nature of the sport, these kinds of problems
will keep occurring. Because there are relationships of trust between coaches
and athletes, because athletes are to some extent dependent on coaches,
and because coaches and athletes aren't as careful as they should be. When
it comes to drug testing, we're extremely good at catching the athletes
suffering from colds and headaches, not to mention those who have been sabotaged.
Pity the real cheats don't get caught in the net more often to remind us
that the rules are actually there for a reason.
"On a legislative level there is absolutely nothing in place to protect
the athletes," says Chagnaud. "The day that someone wants to hurt
you, it's pretty easy to do." And if you're not in with the jet-set,
good luck getting out of it on your own.
Chagnaud has gone the only route available to her and taken her case to
the independent Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne. Her hearing
will be March 12 , and with the examples of Riley and Foschi to point to,
her chances of overturning her suspension suddenly look a lot better. "But,"
she says, "the sad part is that I've already sat out a year and three
months. How could they pay me back all that time?" In the eventuality
that the CAS lets her off, it remains to be seen if that decision will have
the expected weight on FINA.
In the meantime China, and anyone else who has been suspected of doping,
can breathe a sigh of relief. Our sport has become dangerous, mostly because
credibility is now an empty word on the pool deck. With a little imagination
there will no doubt be even better scandals in the future. Scandals that
lead to nothing. The sky's the limit.
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