Saturday, May 18, 2024

Australian swimming coach caught up in China drugs scandal

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“Am I confident that it’s not dastardly? Not for one minute [do I believe that]. I wouldn’t be here,” Cotterell told this masthead over the phone from the pool deck at China’s Olympic swimming trials in Shenzhen.

“I am happy to say I’m absolutely in support of my swimmers and dispute any suggestion of anything orchestrated.

“I see what they go through. I see the measures. I can tell you the stories. I know the facts and I am comfortable.

“The suggestion that it’s systemic is so far from anything I have seen here the whole time. That suspicion was unfortunately earned from 30 years ago in the 1990s. They are so adamant on having clean sport.

“It’s sad to see what this suggests or looks like. It’s unfortunate for everyone. I feel for the athletes here because of how hard they work now to eliminate the tag that was garnered in the ’90s.”

Perceived double standards

When Australian swimmer Shayna Jack recorded a positive drug test in 2019, she was initially banned from competing.

Although Jack’s legal team was able to prove that her positive test to ligandrol was the result of contamination, she spent two years out of the sport. Jack is trying to make her first Australian Olympic team this year.

In this instance, China’s swimmers were allowed to keep training and competing. The country won three gold medals in the pool in Tokyo.

Cotterell accepts that the process followed by swimming officials and anti-doping agencies could have been better and stressed it was out of athletes’ hands.

“I can understand if they [other athletes] are [upset], that’s their prerogative,” Cotterell said.

“I sympathise on other fronts for other reasons. How it was handled, that’s the point of conjecture. I know what they have to endure here. It’s sad that their names are caught up in unfortunate circumstances beyond their control. How that’s handled, well, that’s beyond their control. I feel for the athletes.

“It was an unfortunate administrative process that happened. It unfortunately allows that doubt to come out and to surface. I can’t prove anything, I just know the truth. I’ve seen what I can live with and what I’m seeing. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion on it.”

The contaminated food

Cotterell says that from the age of 14, Chinese swimmers are not allowed to eat in public because of the risk that food could be contaminated with a substance on WADA’s prohibited list.

Cotterell said kitchen conditions at the camp in Shijiazhuang, according to one of the coaches present, was “atrocious”.

“People who come to China know that contamination is an issue,” Cotterell said. “It’s an unfortunate aspect of being here. Plenty of people come and know they can’t eat out on the streets.

Denis Cotterell with Australian swimming great Grant Hackett in 2006.Credit: Paul Harris

“If it was contaminated, it’s unfortunate. It’s really, really sad because that is the risk and that obviously happened.

“I’ve got one of my friends here who was the coach there through COVID. The camp they went to, the conditions were atrocious, he said. If those people don’t buy the right food or meat, that’s going to be an outcome.”

Asked if all food was normally prepared for Chinese swimmers, Cotterell said: “Hell yeah. If they go to a camp situation and the chefs are there, they are going to trust they aren’t buying the wrong food. It’s a consistent risk. They are not allowed to eat outside anywhere. When they go on a plane, they can’t eat the food.

“We were held up for six hours recently. They were stuck in the airport. They can’t go and eat any food anywhere. The national training base had to prepare food and send it to the airport for the kids to eat. That is their daily life. That’s the precautions and sacrifices they take to avoid that risk.”

Cutting ties with Sun Yang

Cotterell has coached controversial Chinese figure Sun Yang in the past and was by his side as he fought to clear his name.

Sun, Cotterell said, was “obsessed” with making sure he did not consume contaminated food.

“He was maniacal about avoiding the chance of avoiding any accident ingestion of anything,” Cotterell said. “That’s why his response to the test was like that on the night [Sun and his bodyguard smashed a container holding his blood vials]. He was absolutely obsessed with the potential risk if he ate something or went somewhere. From the age of 14, you can’t eat anywhere. Inside camp is the only place. Every athlete knows that.”

Australian swimmer Mack Horton infamously called Sun a “drug cheat” and refused to stand atop a medal podium with his rival after a race at the 2019 world championships.

‘I feel for the athletes here because of how hard they work now to eliminate the tag that was garnered in the ’90s.’

Denis Cotterell

There has been speculation that Sun wants to compete at the Paris Olympics, even though his ban expires after China’s trials, which are on at the moment. Sun’s ban ends next month.

Cotterell said he wasn’t working directly with Sun and revealed it was all but certain he would not be selected in China’s team for the Olympics, which begin in July.

“He’s asked me to coach him … but I’m with China swimming,” Cotterell said. “He’s been swimming but he’s been working on his own.

Mack Horton made headlines with his podium protest against Sun Yang at the world championships in 2019 in South Korea.

Mack Horton made headlines with his podium protest against Sun Yang at the world championships in 2019 in South Korea.Credit: Getty Images

“I’ve had a great working relationship with great swimmers. They’re great kids and I’ve enjoyed working with them for the last two years. I’m with them until Paris.

“It would be good if the facts were put out there [so people] understand it’s conclusive that he can’t swim because he’s not at these trials. There is no way he can qualify. That’s it.”

When it was put to Cotterell that the Chinese Swimming Association may have discretionary powers to select Sun, he replied: “From what the rules are, I guess anyone can speculate that there are discretionary powers. I don’t know.”

Where to now?

WADA says it stands by its investigation but has been embroiled in a war of words with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, who believes there should have been greater clarity and transparency when the positive tests were recorded.

The saga will undoubtedly linger over the sport leading into the Olympics.

Cotterell says he is unsure exactly which 23 swimmers tested positive before Tokyo. He says China’s swimmers have no option but to get on with training and try not to let it affect them.

“I see the emotion from it. It’s undeserved in my view,” Cotterell said.

“They [swimmers] have to go get their head around it. You put yourself in the same position. To be put under suspicion because of this, after working for years for their achievements, to be implicated by this, is just sad. People can make their own judgment on that.

“I’m looking at these people daily and I have seen the facts. I’ve known some of these people since 2009. That’s 15 years they’ve committed and trained and achieved success.”

Cotterell’s integrity

The Queenslander is still in regular contact with a number of Australian coaches.

Cotterell has no regrets about taking the role with China and loves what he does, even if this latest episode may have further tainted the country’s reputation.

“I’m upset by it and for the athletes,” Cotterell said. “I know my own integrity. People say, ‘you don’t see everything [that goes on]’. Well, no.


“I’m 100 per cent supportive of my athletes. That’s consistent with everything I stand for. I’m OK with it. I will stay with my team until Paris and do the best I can to help the athletes who I am working with get the best result. It’s drawn me back to coaching. I did what I did in Australia for so many years. I love the sport.

“I’ve been in contact with my Aussie mates and we’re always all good and they’re going great.

“I’ve given you enough to clarify my position.”

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