THE FIASCO that has engulfed Swimming Australia has sparked a major debate within the Australian public. Many have queried whether the men’s relay team had been seriously inappropriate at the London Games, or if it was simply a case of “boys being boys” with our Olympians embracing the spirit of the typical Aussie larrikin.
The community appears to be evenly divided. Some, perhaps still bitter from the perceived embarrassment of Olympic failure, believe the much-lauded men’s relay team were not taking their jobs seriously enough. Others believe that the boys’ pranks calls and late night door knocking are nothing more than a storm in a teacup.
At their press conference last week five out of the six members of the men’s relay team admitted to taking the prescription sleeping medication Stilnox, a substance banned by the Australian Olympic Committee yet legal to use if you have a doctor’s prescription. Veteran swimmers Eamon Sullivan and Matt Targett had such a prescription.
Stilnox is the Australian trade name for a medication called Zolpidem, a non-benzodiazepine drug designed to induce drowsiness. It had regularly been used by swimmers to regulate their body clock during competitions, prior to the recent regulation against its use by the sport’s governing body. Sullivan claimed that he had used Stilnox for years as a member of the Australian swim team, and said that it had never impacted upon his performance in the pool.
Zolpidem, known as Ambien in the United States of America, is a prescription drug in virtually every country in which it is available. It is considered a Class C drug in the United Kingdom. This means that it is available when prescribed by a doctor, however supplying it to someone without a prescription can incur serious penalties.
So what are the penalties for supplying or possessing a Class C substance without a prescription in the UK? According to legal sources charges for possessing a Class C substance are usually waived by police, however penalties of up to two years in prison and fines are still technically possible. For supplying a Class C drug without a prescription, the penalties are far more severe: up to fourteen years in prison, plus the possibility of an unlimited fine.
That is all well and good for the British, I thought to myself, but perhaps regulations are less stringent in Australia? After all, Stilnox is just a sleeping medication isn’t it?
Not according to the Therapeutic Goods Amendment Act of 2006. In Australia, Stilnox is considered a Schedule 4 substance. Just like in the UK, it is only available after obtaining a short-term prescription from a doctor and is not intended for long-term use due to the drug’s considerable side-effects.
The Australian government typically does not engage in criminal prosecution of individuals or groups that supply Schedule 4 medication without a prescription, however serious civil penalties apply that may result in individuals that unlawfully supply Stilnox incurring court-mandated fines of up to $850 000.
It is likely that the swimmers involved in the now infamous Stilnox-fuelled bonding session had no idea that they were doing something wrong when they let their team mates use medication that was not prescribed to them.
When we contacted Greater Manchester Police, they told Australian Times that there was no record of an incident taking place involving the Australian swimming team and said that “given the nature of the allegations, it could well be the sporting bodies themselves who may have dealt with it.”
Have they? Have Swimming Australia or the Australian Olympic Committee “dealt with” the fact that some of Australia’s most elite sportspeople have acted in a way that appears to go beyond just being young and foolish? While the men’s relay team is scheduled to face an integrity commission established by Swimming Australia, they have not been stood down or suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. Swimming Australia may not condone the men’s behaviour, but they don’t seem to be taking it with the seriousness that it deserves.
The use of prescription medication for recreational purposes has been cited by professionals as one of the biggest issue facing law enforcement agencies. It surpasses traditional narcotics like heroin and cocaine as the most commonly abused type of drug in the world. Using Stilnox as a way of “bonding” is not simply damaging for the swimmers involved. It shows a callous disregard for the positive work of anti-drug campaigners by some of the nation’s most recognisable and (until now) respected athletes.
The debate has been about whether the Australian men’s relay team was part of a ‘toxic culture’ or merely irresponsible boys trying to have some fun. Let us not forget that the most ‘toxic’ thing that happened that night was a sleeping pill washed down with a gulp of Red Bull.