Fight against drug cheats needs infusion of dignity

The water must be cold in the Rio pool because the mood outside it is icy. Fingers have been wagged, water has been splashed and hands have not been shaken. Voices have broken with emotion, tears have fallen and insults have been hurled. Rivals have sat on the same dais and not even acknowledged each other.

Did someone say these Games were about brotherhood?

Of course, this is about drugs and cheats. But also about rudeness, unfairness, silliness and tiredness. At one point it was reported that the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, 198cm, had reportedly splashed water on Australian Mack Horton, 190cm. And these are big boys!

Horton then said, "I don't have time or respect for drug cheats," probably because Sun served a three-month suspension in 2014. The Australian, who won their 400m freestyle battle, had the high moral ground, which of course is always a slippery place. When it was suggested that he was winding up Sun, as a tactic, he appeared to look slightly less noble. But in the water nothing is black or white.

After Russian Yulia Efimova, who had failed a drug test in 2014, had wagged her finger after her breaststroke semi-final, American Lilly King returned the favour by telling a TV station: "You're shaking your finger 'No. 1' and you've been caught for drug cheating. I'm not a fan."

When King won gold later she did not even look at Efimova, who won silver, at the press conference. Asked why she didn't congratulate her rival, which is a routine gesture, King replied: "If I was in Yulia's position I would not want to be congratulated by someone who was criticising me."

King correctly wants clean sport and yet was she a good sport? She was right in fighting for an even playing field and yet she sounded rather too righteous. But it's never quite as simple. If people were to call her disrespectful of a rival then how disrespectful of sport are those who cheat? No one wants a weeping Efimova to be booed as she was; far better one might think to jeer the International Olympic Committee and swimming's governing body, Fina.

Clean athletes are speaking out because they feel let down by fumbling officials. If no one is firm on drugs, then they feel they must be. Even Michael Phelps said: "It's kind of sad that today in sports in general, not just in swimming, there are people who are testing positive and are allowed back in the sport, and multiple times."

Eventually it is those within a sport, who have the most to gain or lose, who must save it. To sweat legitimately for four years and lose to a chemically fuelled athlete is mean, unfair and heartbreaking.

And yet if athletes are going to go to war for their sport, then they must do so with dignity. Insulting rivals with a quick damning quote is easier than working hard behind the scenes to influence real change.

Those who speak out must also be consistent, for courage cannot be a convenience. Cheating, after all, is not confined to particular borders and swimmers must speak out as firmly when their countryfolk in any sport are caught cheating. Patriotism is not protection.

Fairness is what is at stake, to people, to nations, to a sport. Are we to ban, forever, every athlete who cheats? And wouldn't that be hard on uneducated village girls, in less developed nations, who are trained by patriarchal city coaches and fed medicines which they dare not argue against? Should we accept those who serve their bans because we believe in second chances?

It is clarity we seek in all this, a position on doping and punishment which most athletes respect and accept. Somehow we must find our way to clean sport, but without competition turning into conflict.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline Fight against drug cheats needs infusion of dignity. Subscribe