Olympic swimmers launch petition for retrospective bans

Allison Wagner spoke to Ger Gilroy on Off the Ball

Olympic medals, Atlanta, 1996,

Image: This is a set of the 1996 Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medals, seen Wednesday, June 12, 1996, in Taunton, Mass., at the Reed & Barton factory. Reed & Barton produced 1,838 medals for the Centennial Olympic games this summer in Atlanta, Ga. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Unless you are a swimming geek, you won’t know Allison Wagner’s name. She finished second in the 400 IM at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, touching out Krisztina Egerszegi, the reigning champion and darling of the pool to claim a silver medal.

Wagner and Egerszegi were both world-class swimmers, close to the peak of their powers. They were destroyed in the pool that day, both beaten by Ireland’s most successful Olympian, Michelle Smith – Wagner by 2.85 seconds, Egerszegi by 3.35 seconds.

Wagner was in Lisbon last week at the Web Summit to launch a new petition seeking justice for athletes who believe they deserve more.

The bare language of the online petition doesn’t really do justice to her story, which we’ll bring you this week on Off The Ball. It mentions calls for the standards in the WADA code to be adhered to, and makes clear that only an effective policing of the code will work – the "Will and the Way" of anti-doping that Dr Ross Tucker always talks about.

But it also includes a brilliant, game-changing notion that might give athletes some pause for thought.

The idea is that the anti-doping police will go after cheats retrospectively; there is no point in their life where they could get to say ‘I got away with it’.

They want to “establish a protocol to review instances of doping and suspected doping for athletes at Olympic Games prior to Sydney 2000”.

Effectively, this would mean that if you failed a test, or committed a doping infraction worthy of a ban after being successful at an Olympic Games, you’d be done. Next person up gets the medal. Better late than never.

Wagner’s story is both simple and complicated. A gold medal may well have changed her entire life, but equally it might not have; we’ll never know.

After Atlanta, her coach refused to allow her a break from the sport because she’d ‘failed’.

Under intense pressure heading into the Games, coupled with a devastating eating disorder, Wagner suffered burn-out and drifted away from the sport at the precise time she should have been basking in a golden glow, with endorsements and whatever other accoutrement of success 19-year-old swimmers can expect after winning a gold medal.

Here in Ireland, we should pay attention to this campaign. We should listen to Wagner’s story.

Of course, Smith never tested positive during any competition including the 1996 Olympic Games, although the Court of Arbitration for Sport heard there was Andro in the sample adulterated by whiskey taken that fateful day at her home in 1998, and in two more stretching back to November 1997.

Her coach when she was winning gold with remarkable late career improvements was someone who’d been banned for doping offences, and who once posed the question in an interview: “Who says doping is unethical? Who decides what is ethical?”

Maybe it’s time to sign that petition and get some people who deserve their medals a shiny new thing in their lives.