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Mack Horton issues furious response after Chinese swimming scandal comes to light

The retired Australian swimmer says Aussie athletes have been let down by a failed system.

Retired Australian swimmer Mack Horton says Aussie athletes have been let down by a "failed system" after 23 Chinese swimmers were allowed to compete at the 2021 Olympics despite testing positive for a banned substance. The swimming world was rocked by the news last week that several Chinese swim team members tested positive for trimetazine (TMZ) - a substance found in heart medication - ahead of the Tokyo Games.

The athletes, however, were still allowed to go for gold after the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accepted China’s explanation that athletes' samples were contaminated by food served in a kitchen at team accommodation during a camp. The investigation found there were small amounts of TMZ in the samples and it was deemed to have not significantly improved the athletes' performance.

Pictured left Mack Horton and right Horton with Sun Yang
Mack Horton says Olympic athletes have been let down by a failed system after news broke of 23 Chinese swimmers being allowed to compete in the 2021 Games despite returning positive drug tests. Image: Getty

However, the decision has resulted in fierce backlash from the swimming community largely due to the fact other swimmers in the past had been provisionally banned while an investigation was conducted, such as in the case of Australian Shayna Jack. Jack was infamously banned for four years after testing positive to ligandrol, before it was reduced to two years on appeal because she took it unknowingly through a supplement. But she still missed the Tokyo Olympics as a result.

Without mitigating circumstances, athletes who fail doping tests are usually subject to bans of two to four years for a first offence and a lifetime ban for a second. And Horton, who campaigned for clean sport throughout his career and famously called out China's Sun Yang for doping, is irate at the latest doping scandal, calling for greater accountability.

"This news is infuriating for the entire sporting community,” Horton told The Age. "People compete because they love to push themselves and race fairly. The news compromises the integrity of sport in general, not just swimming. One of the greatest things about sport is the values and morals it instils in us all, the misalignment seen in this incident is jarring.

"We have global governing bodies in place for a reason. The expectation is that they set the tone for the sporting community to ensure a commitment to clean and equitable sporting endeavours."

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Mack Horton famously labelled Chinese swimmer Sun Yang a 'drug cheat'

Horton famously called out Yang ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, labelling him a "drug cheat" after he tested positive to TMZ. Yang served a three-month ban in 2014 for the positive sample.

Horton beat Sun in the men’s 400m freestyle final in Rio to claim a gold medal before three years later beating the Australian. But after feeling hard done by Horton was involved in a silent protest at the 2019 world championships, refusing to stand next to Sun on the medal podium after their 400m freestyle final because of his previous actions. Yang is currently serving a separate four-year ban for another anti-doping rule violation.

Mack Horton feels sorry for Australian swimmers affected at Tokyo

After learning that 23 Chinese swimmers were allowed to compete just months after testing positive for TMZ, Horton says he feels sorry for the athletes who had to swim against them at the Tokyo Olympics. Australia’s women’s 4x200m freestyle relay team, mixed 4x100m medley relay team and Emma McKeon (100m butterfly) all won medals in events behind Chinese swimmers who were allowed to swim at the Games after not being provisionally banned by WADA and China’s anti-doping agency (CHINADA). And Horton says that decision cost some athletes "life-changing medal opportunities".

“I feel for the deserving athletes who have missed out on the opportunity to race in finals on the world stage due to a failed system,” Horton said. I feel for the deserving athletes who have missed out on life-changing medal opportunities due to a failed system. I feel for the deserving athletes at the centre of this episode. They are victim to a system which has disrespected sport in a bid to manipulate success."

While the effects of the decision from WADA and CHINADA are still being felt post the 2021 Games, with Zac Stubblety-Cook - who won a 200m breaststroke gold medal for Australia in Tokyo - losing his world record last year to Chinese swimmer Qin Haiyang, who was one of the 23 swimmers who tested positive to TMZ.

FUKUOKA, JAPAN - JULY 28: Zac Stubblety-Cook of Australia, Haiyang Qin of China, Matt Fallon of USA with their medals in medal ceremony on Day 15 of the Fukuoka 2023 World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Fukuoka Hall A on July 28, 2023 in Fukuoka, Japan. (Photo by Nikola Krstic/BSR Agency/Getty Images)
Zac Stubblety-Cook (left) - who won a 200m breaststroke gold medal for Australia in Tokyo - lost his world record last year to Chinese swimmer Qin Haiyang (middle), who was one of the 23 swimmers who tested positive to TMZ.

When asked on Saturday about the news, Stubblety-Cook didn't want to weigh in on the debate saying: "That’s up to WADA and that whole system. I’m an athlete and I just have to trust the system."

While British breaststroke great Adam Peaty wasn't so understanding, taking to social media to call out WADA's actions: "Who really benefits from the lack of transparency and secrecy?" he asked. "What happened to strict liability? Whether someone benefits or not, surely at this scale it proves it’s systematic? So disappointing from WADA."