SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s Olympic chief John Coates is fearful the scandal surrounding the misbehavior of the swimming team at last year’s London Games could lead to parents being reluctant to let their children take part in sport.
The reputation of Australian sport has taken a hammering in the last month after the release of a string of damaging reports, including one by the country’s leading criminal intelligence body which said use of drugs by athletes was widespread.
As an advocate of prison sentences for dopers, Coates is certainly not complacent about the issue but sees the Australian Crime Commission report as primarily a matter for the country’s professional sports.
A report alleging that a “toxic” environment had been allowed to develop in the Olympic swimming team, and the admission by five swimmers that they took sedative Stilnox in a bonding session before the London Games was a different matter.
“The biggest worry I have, because of swimming behavioral problems, is that the public doesn’t think as highly of our Olympic teams,” the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) President said on Wednesday.
”The last thing we want is for the mums and dads not to think of our Olympians as role models. We are trying to create greater participation in sport through our team.
“‘Is that what happens when I send my little girl to the team or my little Johnny to the team?’ That’s what scares me.”
Speaking after the opening of new AOC offices overlooking Sydney Opera House, Coates said the swimming affair might also have ramifications in the hunt for the sponsorships which underpin the organization’s budget.
“Our sponsors know that we take a very strong stand on doping, our sponsors know that during the Games we have a total ban on illicit drugs,” he added.
“But certainly some of the behavior aspects of the swimmers is going to cause some problems. We are looking at it and we need to sort it out.”
Coates, who will be looking to raise A$40.2 million ($41.13 million) through marketing ahead of the next Summer Olympics in Brazil in 2014, said one sponsor had called to congratulate the AOC on the hard line they were taking on the matter.
The AOC have appointed an investigator to look into the matter and promised stiff penalties for wrongdoers.
While Stilnox was very publicly prohibited by the Australian Olympic Committee in the lead-up to the Games because of its side-effects, it is not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code.
“The unwashed public out there tend to group it all together as the same,” admitted Coates.
”I bet you there’s a lot of people in England and places that are salivating. Our friendly rivals.
“(But) the rest of the world is not naive enough to think things are not happening in their own countries,” he added.
Coates took his advocacy for criminal sanctions for those who use and supply banned substances, as well as the right to compel witnesses to testify about drug use, to a senate hearing in Canberra last week.
“I‘m confident that ASADA (Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority) will get these extra powers. There’s precedent ... if the integrity of the financial markets is being protected, the integrity of sport should be protected,” he said.
“The question mark for me is whether they will take our point and go further than just civil penalties ... I would like them to go to potentially to criminal penalties.”
It was not just the behavior of some of the swimmers in London that was a disappointment to Australia with the team finishing 10th in the medals table after targeting a place in the top five.
“I think it’s been a bit of wake up to the sports,” he said.
“A lot of the sports have sat back and had a good think about how they could improve and perhaps that hasn’t happened to much since the Sydney Olympics. We were in a bit of a comfort zone for too long.”
Editing by Patrick Johnston