Skill counts but character is priceless


The latest news to rock the international sports community is the ban on Singaporean swimming sensation and, at this point, the city-state’s lone Olympic gold medalist, Joseph Schooling from international competitions while under compulsory service with the Singapore Armed Forces. The ban was imposed on Schooling following his confession to cannabis (marijuana) use in May 2022 at the Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi. Vietnam.

In addition to being an Olympic champion, an honor for which thousands of athletes aspire through fair and, in some instances, foul means, SwimSwam Magazine (SSM) reports that the 27-year-old bemedaled swimmer is a three-time Olympian, 12-time US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion for the University of Texas at Austin. Schooling had initially received a deferment from his national service requirement, but is currently a member of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

The Channel News Asia reported earlier that Schooling admitted to taking cannabis while he was overseas on a “short term disruption” from his service to train for and compete at the Southeast Asian Games. According to SSM, fellow national swimmer Amanda Lim was investigated as well.

As is widely known, Singapore has extremely strict laws regarding cannabis possession and consumption. SSM says that only recently has medicinal use — only for extraordinary circumstances — been legalized. Possession or use can result in up to 10 years in prison with hefty fines of up to Singapore $20,000 (about P800,000). In the case of drug trafficking, one may even face the death penalty. Incidentally, other reports show that there seem to be growing objections among Singapore’s youth on the implementation of its death penalty law.

Schooling’s initial test for controlled substances was reportedly negative but his confession placed him under investigation. Schooling confessed to using banned substances but did not test positive. Under SAF rules, he loses the so-called “disruption privileges,” meaning he will no longer be allowed to go one leave from mandatory military service in order to train and compete for Singapore.

Schooling has publicly apologized for what he called “a moment of weakness.” He was quoted to have said, “I demonstrated bad judgment and I am sorry. I made a mistake and I’m responsible for what I’ve done. I will make amends and right what is wrong. I won’t let you down again…”

Public opinion on Schooling’s confession and his apology has been mixed. Some have called for more understanding for the young man, who is known to be dealing with the death a few months ago of his father who unsuccessfully fought off cancer for many years. Others have said that he should be treated like everyone else and he should not be above the law. One social media commentator pointed out: “all Team SG athletes are expected to uphold the highest standard of conduct as representatives of Singapore on the sporting world stage.” A Facebook commentator added, “It is totally unacceptable as a top sportsman who is supposed to be a national role model.” An article by Ang Hwee Min quotes still another Facebook user, AT Pasteur, as writing: “Besides, we have no idea the stress he has been going through, and the loss of his father as well. A person who admits and apologizes is a far better person than one [who] covers things up.”

Schooling’s cannabis use and the penalty of a ban from competition is certainly not the first such controversy. Recent suspensions triggered by marijuana use have also created controversy. SSM says that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) does not completely ban marijuana use, it only bans cannabis use in competitions.

American track sprinter, Sha’ Carri Richardson faced a one-month suspension after a positive test following the 2021 US track and field trials. The positive test invalidated her trial results, thus disqualifying her from competing at the Tokyo Olympics. Tom Schad of USA Today says that: “Richardson, 21, had blossomed into one of the brightest stars on Team USA before news broke out of her positive test, which resulted in a minimum 30-day suspension under WADA’s anti-doping code.”

In an appearance on NBC’s Today show, Richardson said she ingested marijuana after learning that her biological mother had died. Richardson added, “I want to take responsibility for my actions. I know what I did. I know what I’m supposed to do. I know what I’m not allowed to do, and still made that decision.”

In swimming, Italian sprinter Andrea Vergani and US national team member Tate Jackson have served suspensions for marijuana use; Michael Phelps also served a three-month ban for a photograph of him using a bong (a filtration device often used for smoking tobacco, cannabis, or other herbal substances) came to light, according to the SSM.

The suspension of Schooling is the result of a protocol put in place by the SAF while those of Vergani and Jackson were imposed by their respective national federations and doping agencies.

So where does WADA stand in all this? It appears that the anti-doping agency’s position on marijuana use is starting to soften. SSM claims that the WADA has allowed bans to be reduced to as little as one month.

Schad also states that three months after Richardson tested positive for marijuana use, the WADA announced that it will instruct an advisory panel to review whether cannabis should remain on its list of prohibited substances beyond 2022.

In the meantime, according to a paper entitled “Answers to Common Questions Regarding Marijuana and Cannabis,” the WADA has marijuana in its Prohibited List based on the following criteria: a.) it poses a health risk to athletes; b.) it has the potential to enhance performance; and, c.) it violates the spirit of sport.

In 2011, WADA published a paper in Sports Medicine discussing the reasons marijuana and cannabinoids (group of related compounds and active constituents of cannabis which affect the central nervous system) meet the criteria. The following examples from the paper address the three criteria:

1. Athletes who smoke cannabis or spice in competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times, and poor executive function or decision making;

2. Cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines;

3. Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world.

There are lessons to be learned from this controversy involving Olympic- and world-rated athletes in their 20s. The first one is that in all these instances, the governments, politicians, and national Olympic committees of Singapore, Italy, and the United States did not intervene in any manner to pressure the track and field and swimming federations to act in one way or the other “in order to protect a possible gold medal.”

Second, the Olympians displayed the essence of Olympism by displaying admirable moral character by admitting their wrongdoing and accepting the consequences of their act. As one observer commented in the case of Schooling, “…there was no cover up.” Yes, there was no cover up by the athlete, his/her sycophants, sponsors, and PR practitioners, and so-called influencers. The skill was there but moral character remained supreme.

Third and final point, the Federations, the national anti-doping agency, and the governments concerned displayed courage and were not spineless by holding their ground and letting the law take its course.

The comment of former national women’s soccer team member and Philippine Olympic Committee president from 1995 to 1998, Cristy Ramos, may be instructive: “Cowards and apologists take the path of least resistance and what is convenient.”

Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctorate in business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.

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