Road To The Olympic Games

Swimming competition plagued by doping, top coaches say

In the wake of the death of China's Qing Wenyi, top coaches are warning that elite swimming is plagued by doping. One coach puts the probability of clean swimming at next year’s Rio Olympics at “zero.”

Probability of clean swimming at Rio Olympics is 'zero,' swimming coach says

The Chinese website QQ.com reported that 17-year-old swimmer Qing Wenyi’s death was likely the result of 'a heart condition associated with [performance-enhancing] stimulants.' (Twitter)

Everything seemed to be falling into place for Qing Wenyi, a 17-year-old swimmer with her sights set on next year's Rio Olympics. She had won two gold medals at China's first National Youth Games in late October, and begun training with the national swimming team. It was during that training, on Nov. 9, when the seemingly healthy champion died.

Her parents asked that an autopsy not be performed, but the Chinese website QQ.com reported that Wenyi's death was likely the result of "a heart condition associated with [performance-enhancing] stimulants."

Top coaches — and others — are warning that elite swimming is plagued by doping.

John Leonard, the executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, said in an interview that the probability of clean swimming contests at next year's Rio Olympics is "zero."

"Everything that is wrong with Russian athletics is wrong with swimming."

And in March, Australia's head swim coach Jacco Verhaeren warned that swimmers themselves were losing faith in the system.

"There are concerns about what is exactly happening to prevent doping use," he said in an interview with The Australian newspaper. "The lack of transparency is concerning."

Governing body turning blind eye?

Electrifying performances by Chinese swimmers as far back as the 1980s and 1990s fuelled speculation that athletes were doping. Sure enough, a surge of positive tests and drug suspensions hit China after the 1994 world championships in Rome, when the women's team captured gold medals in 12 of 16 events. 

Leonard said that not much has changed since then. He charges that doping tests are carried out with antiquated technology and that FINA — the governing body for aquatics — is deliberately ignoring a serious problem.

He and others maintain that FINA is ill-equipped to oversee anti-doping efforts and athlete safety.

"FINA doesn't want to catch anyone because their job is to promote the sport, and a fair number of top swimmers are cheating."

Slight penalties

Evidence of widespread doping among elite swimmers is growing.

Sun Yang, another Chinese swimmer who took home gold in the 400- and 1,500-metre freestyle events at the 2012 London Olympics, was suspended for three months in May 2014 for using a banned stimulant. While he began quietly serving his suspension immediately, FINA didn't announce the penalty for seven months.

At this year's world aquatic championships in Kazan, Russia, Sun was named male swimmer of the meet.

Ahmed El-Awadi, the chief executive officer of Swimming Canada, said that he doesn't share all of Leonard's views. But he does have some concerns about how FINA handled Sun's case.

"There's a lack of transparency in the process and of consistency in the application of the rules," he said. "We have Ryan Cochrane fighting for the same gold medal, so we'd love to know more about Sun Yang's positive test and how it was dealt with. We'd love to see hearing and investigation notes."

Other Olympic and world champions who have tested positive in the past two years, like Olympic 400m freestyle champion Park Tae-Hwan from South Korea and world breaststroke champion Yuliya Efimova from Russia, also received reduced bans, which will allow them to compete at the Rio Olympics.

USA Swimming and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency have scheduled a formal meeting to discuss their concerns with FINA executives next month. El-Awadi said that Swimming Canada has had more informal conversations with FINA, but that he is supportive of USA Swimming's approach.

He also agrees that it is worthwhile for international sports federations like FINA to transfer their doping control operations to an independent drug-testing entity, as proposed by IOC president Thomas Bach at an organization's executive meeting this month.

"Right now, international federations are put in a position where they have to test and punish their greatest assets, and potentially hurt their own revenue," El-Awadi said. "It creates a conflict of interest."

Another bungle

FINA's own history and governance practices are hardly encouraging. 

At its latest congress in July, delegates voted to remove term and age limits for its most senior officials.

Denmark's respected Institute of Sports Studies released a study this October ranking all 35 sports federations under the Olympic umbrella based on how accountable, democratic and transparent they are. FINA fared worse in the rankings than both FIFA and the IAAF — the governing bodies for football and athletics — which are both engulfed by allegations of pervasive corruption.

FINA raised eyebrows last year over its decision to award the FINA Order, swimming's top honour, to Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite a series of doping cases that almost resulted in the country being suspended from competition. It has also been scorned for flip-flops over performance-enhancing swimsuits. 

More seriously, Fran Crippen, an American long-distance swimmer, drowned in a FINA-sanctioned race in the United Arab Emirates in 2010. The race took place in extreme heat and Crippen lost consciousness due to heat exhaustion.

Before his death, Crippen had written a letter articulating his concerns about safety in swimming. An investigation led by Dick Pound, the Canadian lawyer who formerly headed the World Anti-Doping Agency, found that race organizers did not properly monitor swimmers in the water and had no adequately trained safety personnel. FINA refused to co-operate with Pound's investigation until he scolded it in the press.

FINA's ability to monitor swimmers' health and safety is becoming an issue as the Rio Olympics approach. With eight months to go, an Associated Press investigation found that waterways being used for open-water swimming events are contaminated by sewage.

El-Awadi said that water quality and water safety are "an ongoing concern," but that he remains confident in the IOC and FINA's ability to manage the situation.

"Open water is a fairly mobile platform," he said. "The events can be shifted if they need to be."

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