On the first night of swimming in Rio, Aussie Mack Horton out-touched China’s Sun Yang for gold in the 400 free… He also did something that few athletes have the courage to do these days: He called his competitor a “drug cheat” and questioned why “athletes who have tested positive are still competing”… A good question. Why aren’t more athletes stepping up, stating the same, and showing the courage of their convictions?
It started with some warm-up pool taunting. Sun was trying to get into the 20-year-old Horton’s head. Word is he splashed him. (‘Bush league psych-out stuff’, in the words of the Big Lewbowski’s Jesus Quintana…) Horton wasn’t having it, and he wasn’t afraid to speak up either. He was soon telling the media that “He just kind of splashed me but I ignored him because I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats. He wasn’t too happy about that so he kept splashing me. I just got in and did my thing.”
His thing: To win Olympic gold in the 400, taking down Sun, the defending Olympic champion, by .13.
Then, at the post-race news conference, with Sun sitting next to him, he stuck by his previous comments, stating “I used the word drug cheat because he tested positive. I just have a problem with athletes who have tested positive still competing.”
Horton is right. In May 2014, Sun tested positive for a banned stimulant called trimetazidine. He served a three-month ban. The Chinese Swimming Federation tried to keep a lid on it, but word got out. But it’s not just the positive test (Sun insists that the drug was prescribed for ‘heart palpitations’), it’s the fact that there’s been some questionable behavior around the Sun camp for awhile now. Most notably, his dubious last-minute withdrawal from the final of the 1500 at last summer’s world championships.
Unsurprisingly, Team China is none to happy about Horton’s comments. They’ve demanded a public apology. Chinese team manager Xu Qi stated, in part, that Horton’s words were “proof of a lack of good manners and upbringing.”
Um, as opposed to cheating and intimidation and a history of less-than-believable results from too many of his country’s swimmers?
But you know, be all that as it may, shouldn’t clean athletes be polite and respectful in the face of competitors they have reason to doubt? No. Why aren’t more athletes like Mack Horton having the courage to stand up and speak?
Well, because of how viciously you can be burned. Shirley Babashoff may well be the greatest female freestyler in history. (Katie Ledecky, you’re making a run at that honor, but Babashoff still has you beat at the moment…) She was robbed of receiving her rightful due, along with a basket full of gold medals, and 40 years ago Shirley spoke out about the East Germans. It wrecked her life. That’s not hyperbole. Her life was wrecked for speaking the truth.
The tragic and shameful treatment of Babashoff way back when continues to have a chilling effect. Damn few athletes have the strength to speak up like she did. And for good reason. They were scared off, and they’re still scared forty years later.
That’s where we’re at right now. The Games are not in a good place. And I don’t mean the beleaguered Olympic host city. The Olympics are stuffed with athletes who shouldn’t be there, whose performances bring shame, not honor, on all of sport. Not just ones who’ve failed drug tests. Does anyone have any faith at all in drug testing any more? Passing a drug test is a virtually meaningless standard when it comes to proving you’re clean. But at least it catches some folks. Of course, as Horton pointed out, it hasn’t prevented plenty of them from competing…
Cheers to Mack Horton. Not just for his hard-fought gold, but for having the stones to say what so many think, but few dare to say.