David Owen

Is the podium about to emerge as a new front in the battle for a more effective anti-doping system?

Recent events in Gwangju, where the Chinese swimmer Sun Yang has twice been the subject of medal rostrum protests by defeated rivals at the International Swimming Federation (FINA) World Aquatics Championships, make this seem a distinct possibility a year out from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

This is even though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other administrative bodies will no doubt be anxious to ensure that the idea does not gain further momentum.

Personally, I must confess to conflicting reactions at the thought that such demonstrations might proliferate.

The journalist in me thinks: "What a great story such a trend would be."

It would also be in keeping with the increased mood of athlete militancy we are witnessing in sport at present, in various contexts.

But actually, you do not need to reflect too long before realising that such gestures, if targeted at specific individuals, could end up undermining the all too fragile global anti-doping apparatus, rather than strengthening it.

Which is not to say that I do not have sympathy with athletes who may still be of the opinion that the system is failing them.

I can also see how it might be argued that the podium of elite-level championships is an appropriate, as well as an effective, place to make such grievances known.

The fundamental point is that due process must be followed with regard to all athletes or the system will quickly unravel to everyone’s, and most of all sport’s, detriment.

Sun, who by the way is a serial winner, is a controversial figure on a couple of counts.

Chinese swimmer Sun Yang has twice been the subject of medal rostrum protests at the FINA World Aquatics Championships ©Getty Images
Chinese swimmer Sun Yang has twice been the subject of medal rostrum protests at the FINA World Aquatics Championships ©Getty Images

He served a three-month suspension in 2014 after testing positive for a substance called trimetazidine.

He also faces proceedings at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland.

This is after the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in March filed an appeal against a decision not to sanction him over an allegation regarding the smashing of a blood sample.

FINA’s doping panel issued a warning over this alleged smashed sample, while concluding, according to accounts of its findings now in the public domain, that the swimmer had not committed an anti-doping rule violation.

But, and I need hardly say it is the most enormous of ‘buts’, a) he has served his time over the trimetazidine finding, and b) he is entitled to the presumption, unless and until conclusively demonstrated otherwise, that the FINA panel dealt with the smashed sample allegation in the best and most appropriate way.

This is even though there might be grounds for wishing that the WADA appeal had been heard and ruled on by now.

I note that the Associated Press’s excellent Graham Dunbar reported recently that Sun, who denies wrongdoing, will ask for an open process at CAS.

One can only hope that he gets this wish.

Why then can I sympathise with athletes who might be minded to stage similar podium protests at other sports events in future?

Because the volume of positive tests turning up as a consequence of the IOC’s retrospective analysis programme – there was another one this week – leads almost irresistibly to the conclusion, in my view, that athletes are still getting away with illicit performance-enhancing drug use, at least until years after the event.

And what are we told repeatedly that retrospective testing cannot really replicate for athletes who receive medals that were rightfully theirs, but not until years later?

That priceless podium moment when their brilliance is recognised, usually in presence of the crowd that paid to witness it.


I played a small part in a modest sporting experiment at the weekend: I took part in an attempt to anticipate The Hundred, the new short-form, 100-balls-a-side cricket format expected to launch in professional guise in seven British cities next year.

We wanted to make a proper day of it, so we actually played two 100-ball innings per team, but leave that to one side.

First impressions were reasonably positive: the game we were engaged in was recognisably cricket and yielded a pleasingly tight finish, with victory obtained by one wicket with just a few balls to spare.

The introduction of The Hundred has gained plenty of media attention ©Getty Images
The introduction of The Hundred has gained plenty of media attention ©Getty Images

Three other observations might be of some interest.

1. The play changes ends only every 10 balls, rather than the traditional six, I think as a time-saving device.

No doubt we will get used to it, but 10 balls does feel an inordinately long time to be fielding in one position.

Our wicketkeeper, moreover, reported that his thigh muscles were feeling the strain by balls eight, nine and 10.

The short stroll to the other end every six balls in an orthodox game, it seems, enables the muscles that take the strain when crouching in preparation to catch to have a breather.

2. While play changes ends every 10 balls, the fielding skipper has the option of switching to a different bowler after five.

Based on our experience, an economical new phrase, or perhaps a hand gesture, is needed whereby the fielding captain conveys to the umpire whether or not the bowler is to be changed at that midway point.

We were not even entirely sure whether the term “over” should be deemed to refer to a five-ball or 10-ball sequence, or indeed at a push whether its use was appropriate at all.

3. If the prime aim of the format really is to compress time so that TV producers, and indeed spectators, can be sure that matches will be done and dusted within three hours, I cannot help but think that some sort of sanction for slow field-setting is likely to be needed, especially in the closing stages.

Our weekend experiment was a glorified beer-match; yet with all still to play for at the last change of ends, I could not help but notice that the opposing skipper executed a full 360-degree prowl around the square before deciding, evidently, that he was satisfied with the stations his fielders were occupying.

Imagine how much time that sort of attention to detail might soak up if more than pride is at stake.