Australian swimmer and Olympic relay bronze medal winner Brenton Rickard, who had his anti-doping case dropped by the International Olympic Committee, says he is relieved but there is a part of his life he has lost.
An historic sample from the London 2012 games when retested last year found minute traces of a banned substance.
In May this year, the World Anti-Doping Agency brought in a new rule allowing a small threshold of some substances to be present without incurring an anti-doping infraction.
The IOC then dropped the case against Rickard.
“You just think something like this could never happen to you so when you first get notified you’re just in shock and you probably spend 48 hours just scrambling, trying to work out what’s happened, what can I do, how can I prove my innocence.”
Athletes who are innocent are in a no-win situation
Proving innocence in an anti-doping case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport requires an athlete to prove how the banned substance entered their system.
As a similar case against Australian swimmer Shayna Jack shows, that is virtually impossible.
“You just kind of realise proving your innocence is a challenge … proving that was impossible, basically.
“I won’t name individuals but someone who is an anti-doping expert and professional basically said, ‘I understand the situation you’re in and proving contamination eight years after the case is not going to be easy, if possible at all, so you might be better off just pleading no contest and buy each of the relay boys a Rolex to say sorry and move on’.
“When you kind of get advice like that … it shakes you to your core a bit.
There has been a rise in the number of athletes globally returning positive samples for banned substances described as “pharmaceutically irrelevant” in a sports-performance context.
CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Travis Tygart, has been a vocal anti-doping expert campaigning for the rules to be changed to prevent innocent athletes like Rickard finding themselves in a no-win situation.
Rickard said after the initial notification of his “A” sample being positive, waiting for the “B” sample to be retested took months because the testing lab in Switzerland had closed due to the COVID19 pandemic.
“You had this weight, this burden that you carry, that you just had to shoulder for months before you got the next piece of news to progress the case further.”
Left to foot the hefty legal bill
While Rickard had the benefit of strong family and friends to support him through the ordeal, and the means with which to fight his case, there are others who don’t have access to such support.
Despite the case being dropped by the IOC and closed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Rickard is left to pick up a $50,000 legal bill.
He still supports the anti-doping mechanism, despite his experience, but says safeguards need to be put in place.
“I think it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world in sport … to direct and lead that anti-doping system, because we’ve seen cheaters and we’ve seen the damage that it does to people that were robbed of the opportunity to win.”
Australian race walker Jared Tallent finished in second place in the 50km race walk at the London 2012 games but had his silver medal upgraded to gold four years later after the doping suspension of Russia’s Sergei Kirdyapkin.
“I got to know Jared Tallent through my time at the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport] and he ultimately got his gold medal awarded to him after the fact … he’s been robbed of the moment so to me there’s just no winners in this realm.
“But I think my case in particular is a real wake-up call that as we progress with technology and systems to try to catch cheaters … you need to put safeguards in to protect innocent athletes.”
The intangible cost of lost opportunities
Currently, the technology used to detect doping in athletes’ samples is of a much higher standard than that used in the quality control and production of over the counter medications.
Rickard was asked if he would be so pragmatic if he was a current swimmer embroiled in such a scenario rather than a retired one.
“That’s probably the one question that’s been rolling around in my head, it’s been hard enough as someone who retired seven or eight years ago … how anyone goes through this, survives this, and is able to come back to their sport is mind-blowing, really.”
Having the case dropped more than a year after it began was, “a relief to say the least”.
The relief cannot replace the time it took and the distraction it had on his family.
His youngest child was three months old when he was first notified of the positive sample.
He’s now nearly two.
Rickard was also unable to continue his work in the sports sector.
After spending five years with the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games organising committee, Rickard had begun consulting for major events domestically and internationally, as well as working with the Australian Swimmers Association (ASA).
“Once the case happened, I could no longer work with the ASA.
“The way doping violations are viewed in this country, it basically prevents someone under suspicion being on pool deck with elite and funded athletes.
“I was also coincidently talking to recruiters in high performance at roughly the same period … I had to basically say look, I can’t do that because once again I wouldn’t be able to fulfil the role for the same reasons.
There is no guarantee that despite the case being dropped, Rickard’s reputation will ever fully recover.
It’s another cost even cleared athletes face once they have been tarnished with the “drug cheat” label.
“Along with the actual costs of the legal fees, there’s some loss of income there that comes out at some dollar figure … I try not to think about it, and I certainly haven’t tried to work out what that number would be because I think that would just sadden me some more.
With his Commonwealth Games experience, he is hoping he might find a role with the organising committee of the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games.
He’d also like to speak with anti-doping officials in Australia to guarantee others don’t have to go through what he’s been through.
“I’d love to have a chat with Sport Integrity Australia about my experience and certain ways the whole process could be tinkered with to be improved … and to avoid this happening to future athletes.”
Sport Integrity Australia was asked by The Ticket if they were open to meeting with Rickard.
While stressing the body had no involvement in his case, a spokesperson said a meeting could be arranged.
“Sport Integrity Australia is always open to speaking with athletes about their experiences in the anti-doping process and would welcome the opportunity to meet with Brenton.”