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Fraser Mixes Her Mountains & Molehills

Feb 28, 2013  - Craig Lord

Dawn Fraser, founder member of the Olympic triple crown club in swimming back in 1964 before her career was cut short by a ban for bad behaviour at the Games in Tokyo, was given the ultimate pardon alongside the accolade of "Australia's greatest female sportswoman of all time" at an awards ceremony in Parliament House, Canberra. 

And then she went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like "ban 'em for life and label 'em as 'drug-takers'."

Fraser was asked about the Stilnox saga,  in which Eamon Sullivan, James Magnussen, Tommaso D'Orsogna, Cameron McEvoy and Matthew Targett all admitted to taking the sleeping pill during an ill-advised "bonding" session at pre-London 2012 camp in Manchester. 

The substance, ruled off limits by the Australian Olympic Committee before the Games, is not a banned substance alongside the things that the World-Anti-Doping Agency and its signatories forbid. Stilnox (or Zolpidem by its generic name) is a substance that is taken by many world-class athletes around the world, including leading Americans praised by Fraser. 

The sleeping potion was banned Down Under over concerns that there could be long-term effects, including addiction. 

Mixing her mountains, metaphors and molehills, Fraser, with a nod to drug-taking and match-fixing inquiries in pro-sport Down Under, said that Australia was being pressured "all around the world to punish known drug-takers". 

"And we have now come up with names of athletes who have taken drugs and swimmers in particular," the 75-year-old said. "Those people who take drugs in sport should be banned forever, not to ever be allowed to come back into sport ... especially in this example. They should be punished severely because they are setting a bad example for the younger generation for our country."

Bad example begat bad example, so to speak. The relays boys, heads hung, confessed their mistakes last week. The effect of their actions was to damage team spirit - not to bring Aussie swimming into disrepute for drug-taking. 

Fraser, who disobeyed a team order not to attend the Opening Ceremony at one of the Games she raced at, was also accused of having damaged team spirit in her day: in Rome 1960, she ended what was described as a "violent argument" at a team meeting when she slapped teammate Jan Andrew in the face. Fraser was "sent to Coventry" by the rest of the women's team and when asked by Roger Pegram, manager to the Aussie team in the pool, to show up for a relay heat said that she was "stuffed and unprepared". She refused to swim and returned to her room for a nap instead. She'd been out shopping and was a bit pooped. 

Fraser will be remembered, of course, for the four gold and four silver Olympic medals between 1956 and 1964, including the 100m free crown thrice and as the first woman ever to break the minute over 100m freestyle occupies a unique plinth in the pantheon.

Some tweeters suggested today that she might now be in line for the "jibbering retired swimmer running off at the mouth award"; the "out-of-touch prize for bygone greats"; and perhaps the "I forgot my own history" trophy. 

During the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Fraser was arrested for stealing an Olympic flag outside the Emperor's Palace before being released without charge and given the flag as a souvenir. She was also said to have swum a moat to get to the flag. She denied doing any such thing.

Fraser was then suspended, unreasonably, for 10 years by her federation. It was a convenient moment for officials to get rid of a larrikin and a headache in their ranks. Before the 1968 Games, the penalty was reduced to four years and Fraser would have been eligible to make a return. By then, it was all too late and the Mexico Games came and went without her, while her speed remained the best there had ever been, in the world and in Olympic waters.

Being a larrikin and a rebel was different to taking drugs, she said, adding: "Stilnox is an upper and I don't believe our swimmers should have mixed that with the drink that they did. I think they set a bad example. They wouldn't inspire me if I was a youngster coming up in the sport of swimming."

Fraser appears to have got her bottles mixed up: Stilnox is an hypnotic drug prescribed to treat insomnia. It is taken by athletes to help them get to sleep and shake off the effects of jet lag. Down the years, it proved useful to Australians, given their geography, whose sports careers include more travel through more time zones than most. 

The relay swimmers now face Swimming Australia's Integrity Panel. Don't expect any life bans. That would go well beyond the folly of the blazers who slapped Fraser with a 10-year ban.