At some point, surely, we will tire of the production line unveiling of cheating athletes. What a shock: an Australian swimmer tested positive for drugs. Who could have predicted it?
With the latest example, Shayna Jack, we’ve seen competing narratives emerge: Australia’s shame (Shayna has let us all down); versus Australia’s damnably bad luck (Shayna can’t work out how the Ligandrol snuck into her bloodstream). Both equally miss the point, regardless of how this all pans out.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Shayna Jack didn’t accidentally fall into a bath of Ligandrol, the non-steroidal “investigational” drug that hasn’t been clinically tested and is not yet approved for sale. Assume she ingested it.
If that turns out to be the truth of it, then will Jack be a poster girl for anything other than the statistical reality that a certain proportion of elite athletes are going to get done for taking drugs every year? What are we standing to learn from this that we haven’t known for decades already? That sport is dirty? That, when money and fame are at stake, some people will cheat?
The real story of Jack is mundane. Like all athletes, she is tested for banned substances constantly. One day, ahead of the just-completed world championships, she returned a positive result. This is a common occurrence, so the protocols for what follows are well established. There’s a delay, until the “B” sample is also tested, as a back-stop to make sure that the initial result wasn’t just a false positive.
Then, the athlete is pretty much done. They are entitled to the usual rules of procedural fairness and natural justice, meaning that they get a fair hearing and the opportunity to test what’s alleged against them, before their fate is decided. They don’t, unlike in criminal proceedings, get the presumption of innocence.
In some contexts, like drug testing, there is something closer to a presumption of guilt at play. How harshly these rules are set, even sometimes to the extent of strict liability (where the establishment of certain facts is all that’s required, regardless of intention or knowledge), is a matter for the disciplinary system governing the particular sport. Participants sign up to it and agree to cop the consequences, as part of the price paid by everyone for ensuring a level playing field.
That’s the problem for Jack. The discovery of a banned substance in her body, shown by two tests, creates a presumption that she knowingly put it there. If she can’t come up with a sufficiently convincing alternative theory (the current theory is her diet), then her position is dire and she can expect a long ban from competitive swimming.
If she is rubbed out of the sport, but continues to maintain her innocence and mystification, then we won’t be any closer than we are right now to knowing whether or not Jack is a drug cheat. We will know that she fell on the wrong side of a harsh set of guidelines, made such because the alternative is a lot more cheating. We can each reach our own conclusion as to the underlying truth, if it matters to us; but we would be better served by acknowledging that, unless Jack says she did it, we will never know.
Unsatisfying, isn’t it? It leaves the conflict between media narratives — Jack portrayed as witch or martyr — unresolved. More widely, it wrecks the black/white story we’d all been innocently enjoying, as our good guy Mack Horton paraded his righteousness against the ‘evil Chinese drug cheat’ Sun Yang by refusing to share his podium or acknowledge his win. We’re adrift, floating in a grey pool of ambiguity.
My point is that the non-resolution is predictable and that this isn’t a story of importance at all. Not to disrespect its life-changing significance for Jack herself, whether she’s guilty or unlucky; I wouldn’t presume to guess at her state of mind and I feel for her like any person of normal empathy would. However, in terms of justice, truth, morality or social relevance, I’m sorry but it contributes nothing at all. It’s no more than the consequence of the application of a tough set of known rules to a specific, and extremely niche, human pursuit.
Of course the media will report stories like Jack’s, breathlessly and with prurient adjectives. It’s worth reflecting, however, that there is a world of difference between a criminal trial and all the careful protections it affords the accused, and the sometimes arbitrary outcomes of a disciplinary regime designed for speed and deterrence. Nothing to see here, folks.
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