Imagine if when your Friday morning paper came out, the headline of the front page of the Sports section was about Lebron James being suspended for 2 months for testing positive for illegal drugs; or that Eli Manning was suspended for 6 weeks for a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Can you imagine the uproar, commotion, and chaos it would make within the fan bases of those particular sports?
Yet, when the Thursday morning addition of SwimNews.com came out reporting that Frenchman Fred Bousquet was suspended for 2 months for testing positive for a banned substance, the swimming world yawned, shrugged their shoulders, and went back to sipping their coffee on the way to their 6 AM workouts. How can a man who is widely regarded as the fastest man on the pool deck get a two month suspension and not have it send ripples of horror throughout the swimming community?
Because, it turns out, the suspension is more of a token to appease the World Anti-Doping Agency than an actual condemnation of Bousquet’s actions. After testing positive at a lower-level French meet on June 13th, and subsequently swimming to a European title in the 50 free, the French Swimming Federation has handed down a two-month ban that began September 20th and will expire on the same day in November. This means effectively that Bousquet will not be affected by the ban at all. All of his results from the summer will stand. He will not be forced to miss French Nationals in the spring, nor the short course or long course World Championships. It didn’t even effect his participation in the recent Tiburon Sprint Classic, which is not sanctioned by any swimming organization, and therefore not affected by any doping bans.
Rightfully, this was the proper decision, and the way that most fans of the sport would prefer a situation like this to be handled. Bousquet tested positive for a substance known as heptaminol. Bousquet has been suffering from inflamed hemorrhoids, which by all accounts is an extremely uncomfortable and painful condition. He had been managing his condition successfully for 8 years using a fully approved medicine, but when traveling to Canet for the aforementioned meet, he had a bad flare-up. Being away from home, he headed into a local, pharmacy that he trusted, and they recommended an over-the-counter cream to help treat the flare during the meet. Although these treatments are only topical, the area to which they are applied (google it if you’re not familiar with the condition, but fair warning that it might not be something to look at while at work) is especially adept at absorption into the bloodstream.
The heptaminol is what is known as a “vasodilator,” which put simply widens blood vessels, which theoretically allows more blood to get to the muscles and increases performance. So theoretically yes, it improves performance. At the same time, it does not have a long-lasting effect, meaning that beyond this meet, even the slight advantage gained was probably moot.
In other words, this was a harmless error made, at a relatively unimportant meet where it wouldn’t be worth the risk of doping. So I, like most people, am satisfied that Bousquet got only a meaningless two-month suspension out of the deal.
But here’s the issue. It does not seem that these same standards of common sense are applied to all swimmers equally. While Bousquet’s error earned him a meaningless suspension, Australia’s Ryan Napoleon, who was struck with a much more egregious error of a pharmacist mis-filling a prescription, received a 3-month ban that precluded him from training with an organized club for 3-months headed into Pan Pacs and the Commonwealth Games. But even this, which was a shift in the timing of the suspension that was supposed to keep him home from Delhi, was only by great cost and appeal to Napoleon to the Court of Arbitration of Sport in Switzerland.
So the real question here is why did it take an Act of God to have the correct decision made about Napoleon, whereas Bousquet’s was right off the bat? And furthermore, why did Spain’s Rafael Munoz, who had a doping suspension waived because he wasn’t mentally fit to attend his drug screening, before winning a European Championship?
The cynical insinuation here is that Napoleon, while a very good world-class swimmer, is not the international champion that the other two are. Therefore, the powers that be decided that one athlete was worthy of being made an example of, while the other two were too much of a PR risk to hand serious punishment to.
Of course, the other (and more probable) view is that they learned from the Napoleon fiasco and were certain not to make the same error in judgment again, avoiding more public outrage and embarrassment. Either way, they made the right decision this time, and let’s hope that this ushers in a new era of logic and reasonability with regard to these suspensions.