Singapore national swimmers Joseph Schooling and Amanda Lim recently confessed to consuming cannabis while abroad, even though CNB investigations and urine tests showed no signs of drug use.
Despite testing negative for the drug, they have been suspended by SportSG for one month and issued warnings by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).
The two athletes have since issued public apologies, with Schooling writing that he ‘gave in to a moment of weakness after going through a very tough period of (his) life’, having to contend with the death of his father and the pressure to replicate the gold medal-winning performance in the 2016 Olympics.
Schooling’s and Lim’s case has drawn comparisons to the American swimmer Michael Phelps, who was issued a three-month suspension by USA Swimming after being photographed with a bong (cannabis smoking pipe) in 2009. Another US athlete, the sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, was not selected for the Olympics and suspended for one month after testing positive for cannabis during the Olympic trials. Richardson said she took the drug to cope with the pressure of qualifying for the Olympics and the death of her mother, echoing the circumstances facing Schooling.
Singapore’s Minister of Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam called on Singaporeans to give the athletes their support and backing, and stressed that the athletes had not received any preferential treatment in comparison to ordinary drug users.
We conducted a survey of 123 Singaporeans and permanent residents to investigate the extent to which the public agreed with this assessment.
Unexpected News, Uncertain Response
Close to two-thirds of respondents (64%) were surprised to hear that the athletes had confessed to using cannabis, suggesting that respondents generally did not expect individuals of Schooling and Lim’s profile to have consumed cannabis despite this having occurred among athletes in other countries.
Respondents were largely split over the treatment of the athletes by the authorities. While a third (33%) agreed or strongly agreed with the response, a larger group (41%) neither agreed nor disagreed with the response, suggesting a large degree of ambivalence or uncertainty.
Among those who disagreed, roughly two-thirds (67%) felt that the response was overly harsh and should have been less severe.
Respondents were also split over whether governments should have the authority to prosecute people for actions taken abroad, but they also expressed stronger opinions on this issue with fewer respondents offering no opinion (16%) as compared to other issues. A plurality of respondents (48%) – but less than half – agreed or strongly agreed that governments should have such powers.
More than a third (36%) disagreed or strongly disagreed that governments should be able to prosecute people for actions abroad. Moreover, 30% of those who agreed said they would change their decision if the actions being targeted were legal in the country they were taken.
Role Models Reappraised
There was also a fairly large degree of uncertainty as to whether the athletes received the same treatment as ordinary drug users. While a plurality of respondents agreed or strongly agreed (39%) that this was the case, 30% disagreed or strongly disagreed, and 31% offered neither opinion.
Similarly, opinions diverged widely among respondents when asked whether the episode had shifted perceptions of drug users. 33% disagreed/strongly disagreed that their perceptions had changed and 41% neither agreed nor disagreed, indicating a high level of ambivalence or uncertainty.
Significantly, however, more than a quarter (26%) of respondents reported that their views of drug users in general had changed.
Respondents overwhelmingly agreed that athletes should serve as role models in society, with close to two-thirds (64%) agreeing or strongly agreeing that athletes should conduct themselves as such.
Despite this, respondents were largely split on whether their impressions of the athletes had changed due to the incident. While a significant number agreed or strongly agreed (37%) that they now had a worse impression, an even larger proportion of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed, suggesting a split in perception of the gravity of the athletes’ actions.
Age a Telling Factor
One major factor that may explain the divided response in the perception of the athletes and their treatment may be the different life experiences and societal attitudes of different generations of respondents.
Young respondents under the age of 35, who made up almost a third of our sample, were more than twice as likely (43%) to disagree or strongly disagree with the treatment of the athletes as those who were older (20%).
Younger respondents were also more critical of the notion that governments should have the authority to prosecute people for actions taken abroad, being more than one-and-a-half times more likely to disagree/strongly disagree (49%) than those who were older (30%).
While almost half of those below 35 disagreed or strongly agreed that governments should have such powers, more than half (52%) of those 35 and above agreed or strongly agreed that such powers should be bestowed.
The generational gap also revealed a divergence in perceptions of the athletes after the incident. Those 35 and above were vastly more critical of the athletes, with the older respondents being about twice as likely to agree or strongly agree (43%) that they now had a worse impression of them as compared to those below 35 (22%).
This may suggest that older respondents were more likely to base their opinions of public figures on their adherence to social norms and rules.
Close to half of those below 35 disagreed or strongly disagreed (49%) that they now had a worse impression of Schooling and Lim, indicating that the issue of consuming cannabis had less of an influence on young peoples’ impressions of the athletes.