Why My Friends Think Michael Phelps Is On Drugs

By Jane

Update: In case this is coming across the wrong way, I’m completely convinced that 99.99% of athletes, including Phelps, are clean. This is a report on the sad things I hear other people, who rarely know much about sport, say about elite athletes.

The obligatory two weeks where the Whole World cares about swimming, diving, track, volleyball and gymnastics are over. It was fun, wasn’t it? Your classmates or coworkers knew the names of your country’s best swimmers, plus the names of a fair few other countries’ athletes. Americans and Britons watched swimming instead of football. New Zealanders set rugby aside to watch their men’s 4×100 medley relay place fifth in record time in the final. Australia did what it always does.

However, when I got back to work the week after the swimming was over, I heard some disturbing things from some of those people who rarely take notice of swimming. It turns out that a lot of them think our sport’s best athletes are cheats. And their assumptions are terribly misguided. It’s also tough to argue with “knowledge” that has no basis in fact.

The top 6 things I’ve heard from non-swimming fans about swimming’s recent rise and rise are thus:

  1. The drugs are now so good that they can’t be detected.
    According to public wisdom, swimmers now have super-drugs that haven’t made the list of banned substances.
  2. The chemists are so good that they can time swimmers’ drug consumption so as not to be detected.
    People cite Jessica Hardy’s positive drug test when using this excuse. Why, they say, did the substance only show up once in a batch of three tests? I don’t know the answer to this and neither, it seems, does anyone else.
  3. The suits did it all for them.
    I call this the Craig Lord reason. According to Lord, and a fair few others, the Speedo LZR suits are the primary reason for the number of world records broken this year.
  4. The pool did it all for them.
    Commentators talked a lot about the design of the Water Cube’s water cube and that’s led people to think that a three meter-deep pool, as opposed to a two, has given athletes an extra advantage.
  5. Administrators are in on the cheating.
    I hadn’t even thought of this one, but when it looked like Michael Phelps had been touched out by Milorad Cavic, several peoeple threw around the idea that Phelps’ win was orchestrated in order to assure the American’s eight gold medas. Even some conclusive video evidence didn’t seem to convince people that there is a reason why coaches advocate not gliding into turns and finishes.

    This theory has been around for a while. I sincerely hope it doesn’t take place in swimming.

  6. All of the above.
    We can thank both the cheats within our own sport and a number from sports like cycling and baseball for this, but many people are simply bored with the rumours and uncertainties. They have fully accepted that everyone who does well is cheating to some degree. They don’t care that Dara Torres, Phelps and many others volunteer themselves to the most rigorous, in-depth testing programmes available to science. They don’t have chemistry, sports science or physiology degrees but they’ve made up their minds about elite sport.

I fall into the camp of trust. I don’t believe that a majority of swimming’s fastest participants are taking drugs or engaging in any other form of cheating. The suits will be helping, as will the depth of the pool, but neither of those two things is covert and neither is against the ruels. You’ll also notice that quite a few swimmers weren’t wearing Speedo LZR suits and also swam very well: Although Arena, TYR and other brands came out with new, advanced technology, none receieved the praise or the criticism of the LZR.

People say Dara Torres can’t be that good because she’s too old. They say Cate Campbell and Emily Seebohm can’t be that good because they’re too young. I don’t believe that either of those things are necessarily prohibitive to athletic success. Age is a concept that we put in place to explain people’s successes, but it really means far less than we think.

Only once have I been completely convinced that I was looking at a drug cheat, and even then, I can’t be sure. It was 1999 and I was in Imperia, Italy, at a World Cup meet. I was in the women’s locker room and I heard someone begin talking behind me in Chinese. It was definitely a male, and a male with a deep voice, at that. I spun around, only to find two women talking to each other. The one whose voice I’d misplaced as male was built like a bulging weight-lifter from the waist up and was covered in acne. She fit every stereotype we have about steroid users. I don’t know her name or what happened to her, and again, I have no proof. And neither do sports fans who have suspicions about today’s swimmers, but it is still a common perception that advantages and cheating exists. The question is how to change elite sport’s damaged and unwarranted image. Expect to hear about it again in four years when swimming (and track, and cycling…) catches the public eye once more.