Australian swimming is being accused of hypocrisy after an Olympic hopeful said she returned an abnormal drug test just days after teammate Mack Horton’s high-profile protest against a Chinese rival suspected of a doping offence.
Queensland swimmer Shayna Jack announced on Sunday that she had tested positive for anabolic agent Ligandrol – which is popular with bodybuilders – in late June and that a follow-up sample has confirmed the banned substance.
The 20-year-old’s statement came after Horton decided not to share the podium with China’s Sun Yang following the 400m freestyle final at the World Aquatics Championships in South Korea, having previously called him a “drug cheat”.
The backlash to Horton’s actions was fierce and spread quickly. China’s state-run media accused Australia of being a “second-class citizen of the West” and of “white supremacy”. Horton was decried as a “clown” and trolls left death threats for him online.
But Jack’s admission has poured petrol on the tinderbox. She has been bombarded with taunts in both Chinese and English that have castigated Australia as a “nation of cheats”. Some posts features emojis of pills.
“This country of Australia is as rubbish as your swimmers. You’re doing drugs and losing face,” wrote one commenter.
Jack has reportedly hunkered down at home in Brisbane with her family as she protests her innocence and vows to clear her name. She has insisted she had no idea how the banned substance got into her system, although it has been suggested she could have taken contaminated supplements.
“I haven’t slept much, and I feel a sense of emptiness,” Jack wrote in a lengthy essay online, in which she said she had to confront “the challenge of facing judgement from people who don’t know me”.
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The four-time World Championship medallist has cultivated a pristine image through her Instagram account, which has now been blitzed by trolls.
Accusations of hypocrisy
Hard, but fair, is the Australian way. Cheats, especially those from other countries, are readily condemned. But cricket’s ball-tampering scandal last year was a sobering reminder that Australia can be as devious as anywhere else.
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After refusing to respond to questions from a reporter in South Korea, Horton later broke his silence over the Jack saga.
“My position remains firm – clean sport must be a priority for all athletes, all sports and all nations,” the swimmer told Australia’s Seven News.
Horton was widely celebrated in Australia for his stand against Sun, who has denied recent claims of violating doping protocols. But Horton has also been accused of highlighting an apparent double-standard, even before Jack’s case was made public.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, columnist Andrew Wu said: “He [Horton] does not seem to have too much of an issue with other athletes who violate anti-doping rules, such as teammate Thomas Fraser-Holmes, who… was one of two Australian swimmers to serve 12-month suspensions starting in 2017 for missing three drugs tests in the space of 12 months.”
Swimming Australia, the governing body, did know about Jack’s shock test result when Horton refused to share the podium with his Chinese rival. Its chief executive, Leigh Russell, said his protest was “difficult” to watch knowing that the doping scandal would soon erupt.
“I certainly was watching Mack, distressed about what would befall both Shayna and Mack in the coming days and week,” she said.
So was Horton let down by swimming bosses? The former head of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority believes that Swimming Australia should have reacted to Jack’s positive test far sooner.
“By covering up and not telling the truth, it makes the story bigger and worse,” Richard Ings told the ABC.
‘Caution’ with China
The reaction of Chinese fans to these scandals comes as China enjoys increasing sporting success and prepares to host the next Winter Olympics in 2022.
“We know that China has increasingly given significant attention to its engagement in global sports, and Chinese online commentators are certainly very patriotic,” said Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University.
“Sun Yang made very particular comments about not only Mack Horton showing disrespect towards him but also disrespect to China. I think that further fuelled the flames on this particular matter.”
Australia’s relationship with China has been unsettled by accusations of meddling in domestic politics and concerns about cyber-espionage. Canberra has also recently raised concerns about China’s treatment of ethnic Uighurs and its detention of an Australian writer.
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But Canberra is unlikely to let sporting tensions interfere with its most valuable trading partner, according to Prof Rothwell.
“The Australia government will be very cautious to try to isolate this matter, to put in a silo,” he said.
“Yes, there is very significant funding for Swimming Australia and for the Australian Olympic programme but otherwise the government is really at arm’s length from the conduct of individual swimmers and whatever political protests they may or may not be making.”