Bad blood in the water

Kevin Lee reminds us that sport isn’t immune to cultural narratives

Underwater shot of olympic athletes swimming. Underwater shot of olympic athletes swimming.

No sooner had the Olympics begun than the first accusations of doping emerged. Before the 400m men’s freestyle finals, Australian swimmer Mack Horton labelled Sun Yang, his Chinese competitor, a “drug cheat”. Horton was referring to a three-month ban Sun served in 2014 for use of the banned substance trimetazidine. After his victory, Horton refused to shake Sun’s hand, and reiterated his accusation at a post-race press conference.

Trimetazidine is commonly used to treat angina, a heart condition that reportedly caused Sun’s shock withdrawal from the World Swimming Championships’ 1500m freestyle final. The fact that the drug had been placed on the banned substances list five months before Sun took it, and had its former classification as a “stimulant” downgraded by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), was submitted as evidence of Sun’s innocence by his supporters. Notwithstanding, suspicion towards Sun has been fuelled by the failure of the Chinese Anti-Doping Authority to report both his failed drug test and his ban until the latter had been served, in direct contravention of WADA regulations.

The Australian media has not shied away from fanning the flames of controversy. Channel 7 commentator Amanda Abate inadvertently referred to Sun as one of many “Chinese cheats”. Abate pressed that it was a “talking point”, and later took to Twitter to call her misstatement a Freudian slip. Speculation as to Asian athletes’ legitimacy is hardly rare. In 2012, a former Chinese medical supervisor alleged the existence of an extensive state-sponsored doping programme during the 1980s and early 1990s, which some suggest still exists today. The revelation last week that swimmer Chen Xinyi failed her drug test is unlikely to assist in quashing those rumours.

The depiction of China as a world sporting power embodying the ‘Big Red Machine’ archetype formerly associated with the Soviet Union has been noted by critics around the world. This characterisation is made easier by popular cultural depictions of Asian people which have sought to rob them of their personalities. Stereotypes of Asian students as “maths geeks” or “instrumental prodigies”, for instance, tend to reduce them to no more than mindless robots, driven by a single-minded desire to succeed. Usually, their talents are viewed not as the result of inspiration, but rather of overbearing helicopter parents or hours spent gaining an “unfair advantage” at coaching colleges – or a combination of both. When the achievements of Asian individuals are tied so closely to these narratives, it’s not too difficult to see how Chinese athletes come to be viewed as drones sent by the Communist Party rather than individuals with personalities and aspirations.

For many, such as Sydney University international student Xia Bonan, this paints an outdated picture of China and echoes a stereotype that diminishes the hard work and achievement of many Asian people all over the word. “There’s this stereotype in the West that everything and everyone in China is somehow controlled or manipulated by the government – or the Chinese Communist Party for that matter – which is definitely not true,” he said. “China is still nowhere near the West in terms of richness of individual expression, but it is certainly far from the era where everybody behaved and dressed in unity and sameness.”

A comparison between the ways in which athletes like Sun Yang and some Australian sports stars are treated certainly seems to suggest that we hold the former to a far more rigid standard. In 2014, members of the Cronulla Sharks, including captain Paul Gallen, accepted backdated doping bans in a move that was widely viewed as an admission of guilt. Yet Gallen’s continued captaincy of both the Sharks and the 2015 and 2016 NSW State of Origin teams has drawn far less criticism than the participation of individuals like Sun at the Olympics.

Likewise, many members of the Essendon AFL team are set to return after serving year-long suspensions for the use of banned supplements. Despite support for the suspensions from both the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority and the WADA, many sought to excuse the players as unaware of what they were doing.

The depiction of young Asian people as automatons often means society is less forgiving to non-Westerners for small missteps that might otherwise be dismissed as simple mistakes. These stereotypes are rife within the education system, with another International student I spoke to explaining how they were often in situations where, “I wasn’t consciously doing something wrong, but some people were always saying that I was cheating […] They thought I was kind of shady.” This sense of animosity and suspicion between Westerners and non-Westerners seems to be worse when they are competing against each other, perhaps illustrated by the disproportionate criticism directed at Sun.

Such animosity is inevitably fuelled by cultural barriers. Many who grew up in Australia might find it easy to feel as if they can relate to Horton’s life. The idea of growing up swimming in a backyard pool, or in school swimming carnivals, is embedded in a common cultural code that allows us to share in his experiences. His journey to Olympic glory feels far more “genuine” as a result. On the flipside, when we are continually encouraged by cultural and political narratives to view those born overseas as foreign and possessing values dissimilar to our own, their pathways to success become murky and difficult to comprehend. As a result, we become far more inclined to attribute their mistakes to malice rather than simple ignorance.

Conversations about race are always complex, but they are particularly so when some form of wrongdoing is involved. It seems far too easy to believe that Horton’s calling out of Sun was merely about the latter being a “drug cheat”. The point of this article is not to exonerate Sun, or to suggest that all accusations of doping must be racially motivated, or that such call outs should never occur. Rather, it is to note that the cultural narratives that define our relationships with others subtly influence how we judge their trustworthiness and credibility. The Olympics are meant to bring individuals together. Such narratives can only drive them apart.