Sun Yang and Mack Horton

Sun Yang and Mack Horton at the 2015 World Championships

Mack Horton won an epic victory in the men’s 400m freestyle, climbed out of the pool into his glasses and mild Clark Kent persona, gave the obligatory post-race interview to a gushing Channel Seven reporter and fired the shot heard around the world:

“Definitely a win for the good guys. I don’t know if it’s a rivalry between me and him, just me and athletes who have tested positive.”

Horton had already called Chinese silver medallist Sun Yang a “drug cheat” before the race, and made more pointed statements later. But, in the moment, Horton broke the seal on a bottle and released a drugged-up genie who won’t be getting back in.

My immediate reaction, watching it unfold live, was something like “Oh, that’s a shame. What an ungracious winner.” Weren’t we taught to always play the whistle? Accept the verdict of the rule keepers, even when we know it’s completely wrong; even when we believe it’s 100% bullshit. Shake your opponent’s hand, even when you hate him, when he cheated all game, when he’s a cheat. That’s what we still teach on the sidelines of children’s sport, isn’t it?

The gushing torrent of abuse that has rained down on Horton from every corner of China is beside the point; there’s no moral high ground to be found in nations that use sport as a proxy for nationalism and have a track record of systemic cheating in that cause. Nor can Australia rightly claim the mantle of purity on performance enhancing drug use, any more than any other country. The flag-waving aspect of this fight is a silly sideshow.

There’s a deeper issue here. Horton clearly thought carefully before he spoke. When questioned about whether he had any regrets, he said:

“I don’t think it’s a big statement because it is true, he has tested positive. No athlete has really come forward and said it. It wouldn’t have felt right if I raced against someone who had tested positive and didn’t bring it up. Hopefully others will follow.”

As they have. US 100m breaststroke gold medallist Lilly King refused to shake hands with Russian silver medallist Yulia Efimova, who has served two bans for taking banned substances and is tainted anyway by the Russian state-sponsored doping program. King was clear that Efimova should not have been there at all, and explicitly supported Horton’s actions:

“He said what everyone was thinking and I also said what everyone was thinking. I do think it’s a victory for clean sport.”

King then took the debate out of the pool and into the wider realm of Olympic and elite sport generally. Asked if American sprinter Justin Gatlin, who has also been caught twice for doping, should be running in Rio, she said: “Do I think people who are caught for doping offences should be on the team? No. It’s just something that needs to be set in stone.”

Even Michael Phelps has weighed in with the full moral authority of his 21 gold medals. In sport, the guardians of the galaxy are the legends: the impeccable champions, those who win big and win clean (or at least are never caught). Their words carry heft. Now that they have crossed the previously taboo line of calling out competitors who are lawfully present and participating, refusing to acknowledge their right to compete and denying the validity of whatever prizes they win, where are we left?

I’m not critical of Mack Horton or the others. It’s obvious that they have reached a cracking point. That point is the one where, according to their moral compass, the ancient rule that you suck it up, compete on the playing field you’re handed no matter how uneven, and be a gracious winner or loser, will no longer suffice.

The swimmers are calling time not on drug cheats, but on the entire governing system of world sport. They’re expressing their total loss of faith that it will or can protect them, should they choose to be clean, from those who cheat. As every professional cyclist on earth should have said when seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was finally exposed as a serial drug-taking fraud, the swimmers are saying: “Nuh. This is bullshit, and I’m calling it.”

Cycling carried on, pretending that its problem had been solved. Sport is such a massively lucrative industry that its institutional structures only know one response to each scandal, no matter how large; they make the smallest token gesture they feel will do the trick and get back immediately to business.

But what happens when the athletes themselves start openly revolting against those very structures? According to the rule book of the International Olympic Committee and world swimming body FINA, the medals won by Yang, Efimova, Gatlin and everyone else who isn’t found to be doped up at these Games are as valid as those won by Horton, King and Phelps. According to Horton, King and Phelps, those medals are worth nothing.

For the fans, it’s a confusing moment.  Sport is an artificial construct.  It has no meaning outside its own superstructure, the foundational pillars its creators establish. The pillars are the rules, the bodies that make and enforce the rules, and the records made and broken under those rules. We attach enormous, untold meaning to all of this, because sport has the ability to transcend the dullness of daily life and give us a collective shot of happiness.

The bargain requires, however, that we have some basic faith that the playing field is more or less level. We can cope with a degree of disappointment in that faith, we know that there will always be cheats. We trust the institutions to keep it clean enough so we can continue to innocently marvel at the extremities of human achievement.

Mack Horton is calling us on this. He’s telling us in plain language that we’ve been parties to a long-running fraud. The necessary implication in his words is that something has to give. His loss of faith has consequences, for him and us. It’s no less devastating a blow to the institutions of global sport than the revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sex Abuse have been to the faith of many Catholics in their own Church.

Lack of faith in institutions is all the rage these days. Political and governmental institutions everywhere are increasingly discredited. Donald Trump uses this sense of distrust cleverly when he calls the presidential election “rigged” before it’s even happened.

As King said, “Total props to him [Horton] for speaking out first.” He may not have been fully aware of what he was unleashing, but there’s no going back now. Sport, the most corruptible and actually corrupt industry in the world, is in trouble.