Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, August 8. CAMERON van der Burgh has admitted that he cheated. Good for him — and bad for him.
By admitting his guilt in executing more than the legal number of dolphin kicks in winning gold in the 100 breast final at the Olympics, van der Burgh's reputation is now as tarnished as the swim itself. How can he speak to young children about working toward their dreams, especially if it seems working toward that dream means knowingly cheating? How can sponsors endorse him knowing he got on the top of the medal podium by breaking the rules — and did it consciously? He has not said if he plans to continue swimming, but if he does, I cannot imagine van der Burgh will be greeted warmly on the pool deck at his next competition. His philosophy seemed to be “If I'm going down, I'm taking everyone else on this ship down with me.”
He also has no intent on giving up his gold medal, a decision that has found few supporters. Many are calling for van der Burgh to surrender his gold medal and the world record he set in winning it. So am I.
Earlier today, the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, speaking on behalf of Swimming South Africa, had no comment regarding van der Burgh's statement, and said no action will be taken against the swimmer. FINA, swimming's international governing body, has not replied to Swimming World's requests for comment.
This is the first time I can recall an active athlete admitting guilt so soon after winning. We all remember the East German women who admitted they knew they were cheating using performance-enhancing drugs, but they did so 20 or so years after the fact, and FINA seemingly washed their hands of it.
Unfortunately, it's too late for a swimming federation to lodge an appeal to FINA and the International Olympic Committee, and neither organization has a policy in place to retroactively change a result. I don't blame either group for that. Who expects someone to brazenly admit to cheating less than a week after winning Olympic gold? It would be different if someone else accuses a competitor of cheating. It could be viewed as jealousy, and that's not a strong basis for appeal. But this is straight from the mouth of the winner himself, and no matter what van der Burgh might say in the future, there's no taking it back. (Van der Burgh has not commented on the situation since the publication of the Sydney Morning Herald article that started it all.)
But the Court of Arbitration for Sport is a viable option for FINA and the International Olympic Committee. The CAS has heard many appeals, most of them involving athletes suspended for positive drug tests. And while this seems like a unique situation, there is precedent for this: Marion Jones admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, and her Olympic medals were returned seven years after she won them and all her results were voided. Yes, van der Burgh admitting he did a couple of dolphin kicks is on the same level as someone admitting they took drugs. Cheating is cheating. If you admit to it, you should be ready for the aftershock.
FINA's initial reaction to this might be the same as their response to the East German situation: There's nothing we can do. But FINA has shown that they have plenty of power in such situations. The FINA Jury of Appeal reversed Tae Hwan Park's disqualification in the 400 free at the Olympics, even though they could have stated that the referee's decision was final. And in a stunning twist, they used video footage in making their ruling.
My hope is that FINA's lawyers will look into filing an appeal with CAS, and while they do that, Bureau members should seriously look into getting underwater video judging in place. It's been eight years since the public first called for such a thing, and this current scandal should put the plan into hyperdrive. Several attempts were made a couple of years ago, but I still don't understand what is delaying a final decision. Is it cost? Sure, not every meet will have underwater judging, but it could be used at every major international meet (Olympics, world championships, European championships, Pan Pacific championships). Surely there is no shortage of officials on hand to sit in front of a monitor and watch instant replay of all eight swimmers in a heat.
A lot of kinks need to be worked out for the system to work, but it needs to happen. An emergency meeting must be called in the coming months to vote on testing underwater video judging at the World Cup meets, getting the system perfect in time for its official rollout at next summer's world championships.
If van der Burgh is correct in saying that everyone would stop doing the illegal dolphin kicks if they knew there was no way to do it unnoticed, then FINA needs to drop everything else and focus solely on this problem.
But this ordeal does not end with van der Burgh surrendering his medal and FINA changing its stroke judging protocol. It continues with silver medalist Christian Sprenger, who should not have been in the final. Swimming World was first to report Sprenger's illegal dolphin kick into the wall at the finish in the semifinal. Had the judge noticed the dolphin kick — which was quite obvious from many angles — Sprenger would not have had a lane in the final.
Would FINA be allowed to include Sprenger in their medal revocation case? Sprenger hasn't admitted to dolphin kicking, but the video proof is there for submission to the CAS. The proof is also there that others in the heat performed illegal dolphin kicks, so if we call for Sprenger to give back his medal, do we call for others seen dolphin kicking in underwater video to void their result as well? Yes, if we are to hold everyone accountable for their actions.
And then there's Brendan Hansen, who won a surprise bronze medal in the 100 breast. The 2012 final marks the second time Hansen has been a part of major controversy in a 100 breast Olympic race. In 2004, spectators in Athens and those watching on television screens clearly saw Kosuke Kitajima perform a dolphin kick at the start of the race. At the time, the dolphin kick was illegal, though I know it was something many swimmers used and got away with for many years. Kitajima won gold, never admitted to using the dolphin kick, and left Hansen with a silver medal. If van der Burgh and Sprenger give up their medals, Hansen gets the gold. It remains to be seen if Daniel Gyurta and Kitajima, who placed fourth and fifth, would get silver and bronze. I have no problem with that … as long as video doesn't show them cheating.
I am getting no satisfaction from calling for Cameron van der Burgh to give up his medal. I have interviewed him on The Morning Swim Show, and have had personal email conversations with him over the years. At one point, he invited me to train with him in South Africa. I can't help but wonder, though, if part of his workout would have included a session on how to get away with cheating.
This is a sad moment for swimming, and as a breaststroker, I lament what the future holds. I fear van der Burgh will not be held accountable for his comments. I fear FINA will not file an appeal. I fear underwater video judging will not be used for many years. In place of video judging, I worry that FINA will do the unthinkable: Allow breaststrokers to do whatever they want underwater at the start and turn, as long as they surface to swim breaststroke before the 15-meter mark.
Jeff Commings can be reached at email@example.com.