Schwimmen © imago/Bildbyran Foto: JOEL MARKLUND

06:03 min | 04.08.2018 | Das Erste | Autor/in: Hajo Seppelt, Edmund Willison

Swimming under Suspicion

While the continent's greatest swimmers gather in Glasgow, there are doubts whether we can be so trusting of the competition's fairness.


Doping: Swimming under Suspicion

In order to fight the supremacy of football's popularity seven major sports have come together to stage their European championships in an unprecedented unified event. Yet while the continent's greatest swimmers gather in Glasgow, there are doubts whether we can be so trusting of the competition’s fairness. Some athletes will compete, that have not been subject to unannounced doping tests in the lead up to the championships. The International Swimming Federation is staging its fight against doping more as a potential alibi rather than a foe. Scientific research into the psyche of elite swimmers shows a widespread readiness to use illegal substances to enhance performance.

By Hajo Seppelt, Edmund Willison, Jörg Winterfeldt

In the East End of Glasgow, Scotland, the historic roots of the city draw in waves of tourists. As of last Friday it is now home to one of the summer's two sporting highlights. While Glasgow stages the first European Championships, a unified event comprising seven major olympic sports, Berlin is at its side for the athletics. The European swimming championships are taking place in the recently refurbished Tollcross International Swimming Centre on Wellshot Road.

Over ten days more than a thousand of the best European athletes will fight for medals in 72 aquatic events. Meanwhile new findings raise concern over the honesty of these elite athletes competing in the pool. Even though the international fight against doping has become tougher, there are still strong reasons for mistrust over the results we see. Over the years some of swimming's most successful athletes have regularly been caught cheating and a scientific opinion poll amongst anonymous elite swimmers reveals their willingness to dope. Combined with an insufficient testing system and a world federation with a reputation for negligence in the fight against doping, the remaining trust in swimming is being worn away.

Ryan Lochte's daftness

Traditionally swimming finds itself amongst those elite sports with a major doping problem. Already in the German Democratic Republic doping swimmers was a part of a state-sponsored program, Staatsplan 14.25. At the 1994 Asian Games a group of eleven female swimmers from China tested positive for prohibited substances. And in 1998 Irish swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin, who had been won big at the Olympics two years earlier, was banned for four years. Traces of Androstenedione, an anabolic steroid, were found in her urine, although the sample had been tampered with.

Just recently one of swimming's heroes, the American Ryan Lochte, a six-time Olympic Champion, has shown how insensitive even today's stars even are to the doping problem. Lochte was just banned for fourteen months after delivering proof, himself, of an anti-doping rule violation. On the social network Instagram he posted a photo of himself receiving a forbidden intravenous infusion.

Disastrous opinion poll

Damir Sekulic © eyeopeningmedia

Dr. Damir Sekulic.

At the 2017 Slovenian National Championships, Dr. Damir Sekulic, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Split, Croatia, and his colleagues were granted the right to question all competing swimmers about their attitudes towards doping. The results were alarming: 43 % claimed "doping is often", 53 % think, that doping in swimming "occurs, but rarely", and 11 % confessed, they "would engage in doping if it would help with no negative health consequences".

Dr Sekulic and his colleagues published their scientific findings in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. "There was a clear correlation between higher mileage and potential doping behaviour with those swimmers who declared positive doping tendencies where at the same time those who declared that their training was mostly oriented toward mileage and not technique", Dr Sekulic told ARD. These results have already been processed by the Slovenian Swimming Federation. They are now informing coaches of the dangers of not focussing on technique in training.

The Failure of Fina

The International Swimming Federation, Fina, claims publicly that they are devoted to the fight against doping. Yet whether their actions follow their public declarations is questioned by one of swimming's respected figures. John Leonard, Executive Director of the World Swim Coaches Association, doubts Fina's motives. "Regardless of what Fina says, Fina's actions make it clear that they are not anti-doping, that they are not serious about catching cheats, they are not serious about protecting clean athletes", Leonard told ARD via Skype from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "The executive director of Fina, Cornel Marcolescu, is on record across numerous media outlets of having said 'you can't blame the stars for a few minor doping offences'".

Experts still remember Marcolescu's appearance at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro 2016 with horror. The Fina director warmly embraced Sun Yang, a Chinese star, who had just recently returned from a drugs ban. Fina had not informed the public of his suspension until it had finished. Leonard therefore thinks that Fina is completely unqualified to actively and efficiently tackle the challenges ahead. "I think there are a large number of athletes worldwide in every country that are using micro doping", Leonard told ARD, "micro dosing probably has fewer health effects and they feel safer doing micro dosing". Microdosing involves taking small doses of banned substances, very often, to avoid detection during doping controls.

Lack of anti-doping tests

Mireia Belmonte (r.) und Fred Vergnoux © imago/Agencia EFE

Fred Vergnoux (l.), head coach of the Spanish Swimming Federation.

Fina's most recent annual report 2016 shows that the federation spent less than 4 % of its total income of 59.5 million Swiss francs on out-of-competition doping controls, the most efficient way to catch cheats. The previous year it was just 1 %. The latest statistics of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Wada, reveal they performed just 44 carbon Isotope ratio tests, the confirmatory test for the presence of testosterone. In out-of-competition only 808 tests were taken for EPO, the forbidden oxygen booster.

Pure arithmetic shows that there will be swimmers starting in Glasgow, who have never not been subject to unannounced doping controls. "We also have some swimmers and myself as a coach, I have some swimmers who are not in any kind of, I don't know how you say it, follow-up or anti-doping system", Fred Vergnoux, head coach of the Spanish Swimming Federation, told ARD.

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Das Erste | Sportschau | European Championships 2018 | 04.08.2018 | 18:00 Uhr

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