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Commentary: Joseph Schooling’s fall from grace over drug use raises serious questions

Swimmer Joseph Schooling put Singapore on the global sporting map and captured the hearts of local sports fans, when he won the country’s first — and only to date — Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Olympiad.

The author believes how Schooling will be remembered will depend on how he deals with this latest adversity.

The author believes how Schooling will be remembered will depend on how he deals with this latest adversity.

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Swimmer Joseph Schooling put Singapore on the global sporting map and captured the hearts of local sports fans, when he won the country’s first — and only to date — Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Olympiad.

But some of those hearts may have broken on Tuesday night (Aug 30) when news emerged that the swimmer had confessed to using cannabis while overseas in May this year as he prepared for and competed at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Vietnam.

To be clear, the news marks a dark day for Singapore sport, even though public reaction seems split between condemnation and support for Schooling, with some even taking the opportunity to push for cannabis legalisation here.

Regardless of individual views on cannabis use, Schooling was a nationally carded athlete, meaning he received funding and support from taxpayers’ monies.

He had also been granted disruption privileges from national service (NS) to train and compete at a major games when he, in his own word, “made a mistake” in a “moment of weakness”.

Beyond that, he had become a national hero and icon after trailblazing performances in the pool that included world championship medals to go with his Olympic feat, which saw him beat no less a legend than the incomparable American swim star Michael Phelps.

The number of aspiring swimmers in Singapore surged in the wake of the Rio Games, and Schooling himself recognised that many young fans looked up to him for inspiration, and that he had let them down by using drugs.

Cannabis is illegal in Singapore except for medical purposes with special approval, and is also prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency which polices drug use in global sport.

The jury is out on whether cannabis can enhance sporting performance.

But one thing is clear: Schooling broke the rules, and as an experienced champion, he knew full well he was doing so while wearing national colours and supported by public funds.

His fall from grace raises some serious questions for Singapore sport.

PUBLIC TRANSPARENCY NEEDED

The news that Schooling had confessed to cannabis use while under investigation by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) came along with a statement by Sport Singapore (SportSG) that another swimmer — Amanda Lim — had also been investigated by CNB and received a stern warning under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

But questions remain, like what triggered the investigations into the duo, when did the probe take place, and who else were investigated, if any.

That two swimmers were flagged at the same time is also bound to raise concerns for the sport and how it could happen to two high-profile athletes.

Lim had held the title of Southeast Asia’s fastest woman, winning six SEA Games gold medals in the 50-metre freestyle spanning an unbeaten run that started in 2009. That streak ended at the Vietnam SEA Games this year where she finished in second place.

SportSG, the Singapore National Olympic Council, and the Singapore Swimming Association have said they will review the circumstances of the cases before deciding on the next steps to be taken.

This will be important given swimming’s key place in Singapore sport, its long heritage of excellence and broad appeal among many Singaporeans.

Transparency will be crucial once the findings of the reviews are completed for public accountability, but more so if the sport is to retain its popularity and continue to attract young athletes and their families.

Key questions that the public would like answers to are: How did this happen, and how to nip the problem in the bud to prevent repeats, not just for swimming but all sports.

The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) acted decisively to punish Schooling by issuing him a formal letter of warning, placing him on a mandatory urine drug-testing regime for six months, and stripping him of his eligibility for leave or disruption to train or compete while serving NS — a privilege he had been accorded for being an elite athlete of Olympic calibre. He enlisted in January this year.

Schooling likely avoided being sent to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Detention Barracks as his urine test turned up negative for drug abuse. But he also did not qualify for the SAF Amnesty Scheme, which was introduced in 1976 to provide an opportunity for drug abusers to seek help.

Under the scheme, drug offenders who voluntarily confess the first time will not be punished and will instead receive counselling and rehabilitation. Schooling confessed while being investigated by the CNB, and this is likely to be why he faces sterner measures.

The authorities are likely to take pains to ensure that he is not seen to be given special treatment as a result of his sporting successes, but would also want to supportive of an athlete who, by his own admission, had gone through a “very tough period” of his life.

He had struggled to perform at the Tokyo Olympic Games last year, and lost his father Colin to cancer in November last year.

It will be a delicate balance for Mindef to strike, between giving regular updates to the public keen to follow how Schooling is progressing and providing Schooling the space to recover from this saga.

WHERE TO FROM HERE

Schooling is not the first high-performing athlete to have taken recreational drugs, and he is unlikely to be the last.

When I was training and participating in international competitions, it was common to see athletes dealing with the stress and pressures of their sporting careers by letting off steam after major events or during the off season. This would most commonly come in the form of partying and drinking alcohol.

But others pushed the boundaries. I personally knew of a fencer from Hong Kong who was banned after testing positive for cannabis.

Last year, United States sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson missed out on the Olympics despite qualifying by winning the 100-metre sprint at the US Olympic Trials. She tested positive for cannabis after the trials, which she said she used to deal with the pressure of qualifying for the Olympics and the death of her biological mother.

I cannot profess to know what it’s like to deal with the pressure that comes with being at the very pinnacle of global sport, which Olympic medal hopefuls have to contend with on a regular basis.

At the same time, there is an obligation to be held to higher standards that comes with the trappings of sporting success. Those who stand on the top step of the podium often have to accept that they will be icons, role models and heroes to many, and this comes with responsibilities.

While the dust has yet to settle on the latest news, how Schooling will be remembered will depend on how he deals with this latest adversity. Ironically, he may be able to learn from another athlete who shared the podium with him at the Rio Games.

Phelps, the 23-time Olympic champion, brought home a record eight gold medals from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A year later, he was photographed smoking a marijuana pipe and suspended for three months, despite never having tested positive.

As we now know, he was able to overcome this and return to winning ways in subsequent Olympics, and establish himself as one of the greatest athletes ever.

For Schooling, it’s not clear if he will, or even wants to, return to the pool.

He had earlier declared an interest in competing at the Asian Games in China this year. This has been postponed to 2023 by the host nation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the interim, he will now have to complete NS without the benefit of getting time off to train and compete.

Regardless of whether he dons a pair of trunks to race for Singapore again, he still holds an important place in the country’s history as our first and only Olympic gold medalist.

In a statement on Tuesday night, he acknowledged responsibility for what he has done, and pledged to make amends and right what is wrong.

There are a few ways this could happen, including a sporting comeback that showcases his determination to be a positive example for aspiring athletes. Or efforts to use his experience to help future champions cope and navigate their journeys without making the same mistakes as he has.

At 27, he remains young enough to learn from his mistake, demonstrate remorse at having let a nation down, and pick himself back up.

As someone who has fought his way to the top of global sport, he is certainly no stranger to adversity. Hopefully he still has the grit, resilience and good sense to climb the latest mountain that has risen up in front of him.

I, for one, will be there to cheer him on if he does.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nicholas Fang is a former national fencer and triathlete, and has helmed the national fencing and modern pentathlon federations. A former Nominated Member of Parliament, he was Team Singapore’s chef-de-mission at the 2015 Southeast Asian Games.

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