Christopher Niem sat down with Geoffrey Cheah, Hong Kong’s sole representative in men’s swimming at Rio 2016, to talk about his experiences at the Olympics, the state of swimming, and what he plans to do next.
CN: You’ve just competed at the Olympics – I’m sure this was a fulfilment of a life-long dream for you. Have you had a chance to sit back and reflect on the experience? Was there a particular moment which was a highlight for you?
GC: Yes, for sure I’ve had a chance to sit down and reflect – I think it would be a mistake to not do that, as a lot of times after the Olympics you get very busy. The highlight of my games was really my race. I enjoyed swimming that race, the feelings that I had going through the water, walking out to such a massive crowd – that was my highlight.
CN: You swam a good race at the Olympics, winning your heat handily. However, you didn’t manage to achieve a personal best time. Was this a regret for you, and were you happy with your performance?
GC: It certainly contributed to some mixed feelings. I think around 5-10% of swimmers achieve their personal best times at the Olympics. To be even so close to achieving a personal best time, I was happy with that. Obviously being at the Olympics is all about beating yourself, because if you can’t even do that, you won’t qualify for the semi-finals. The pressure was obviously much higher during the race for me personally, more so than ever before. The 50 free was a difficult event to swim in because I had to wait a week before the event took place, whereas other swimming events started almost from the start.
CN: You mentioned that life gets busy after the Olympics. What have you been up to since then?
GC: I’ve been fortunate enough to do some interviews and some media promotions, just really trying to build my profile since I’m pretty new on the scene. In addition, I’ve been doing some charity work. I was named one of the ambassadors for the Men of Hope campaign run by the Adventist Hospital. This aims to raise money for underprivileged people who can’t afford cancer diagnosis such as x-rays and PET scans. With my father’s current medical condition, it’s a cause that is very important to me.
CN: You spoke to the media in the aftermath of the Olympics about your father’s condition. How is he doing?
GC: It’s a very hard fight, and unfortunately his type of cancer is very rare. There’s no real targeted treatment for it. It’s put a lot of things in perspective for me, and I try to be as positive as I can along with my parents about all this. He’s been in hospital now for almost six months, so it’s really not been easy. That’s why I put my Olympics games in perspective. To have all that stuff going on before, I’m really quite happy with how I handled everything, and I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support. Cancer really sucks. Miracles can still happen, so we’re really believing in that.
CN: Have you given any thought to continuing swimming? Is Tokyo 2020 a target for you?
GC: I’m really taking everything as it comes. I’m definitely not officially retiring. I’m still keeping really fit, though not necessarily in the pool, and I’m really working on the other areas of my life. There are two ways to being an Olympian. The first is to really focus solely on your sport. The second way is to be more well rounded and have other things going on in your life. Right now I’m working on my other passions. After getting a Bachelor of Science from Stanford in renewable energy and environmental economics, I’d like to explore opportunities in social entrepreneurship, sustainable development or impact investing. I’m looking to build around my swimming achievements and apply the lessons that I’ve learnt through those to the rest of my life. Hopefully this will keep me refreshed. The last two to three years I’ve solely focused on swimming. Looking forward to 2020, I would seek to have a more multidimensional approach to competitive swimming.
CN: In the buildup to the Olympics, allegations of a state sponsored doping programme run by Russia dominated media reports. Right after your race, you made some comments about how ridiculous it is that swimmers can fail tests and then show up at subsequent meets like nothing has happened.
GC: Also secret suspensions.
CN: Absolutely, because the way that these bans work is that the national governing body for swimming in various countries administer those bans, so there is a potential conflict of interest there. Can you elaborate on these issues?
GC: Yes for sure there are conflicts of interest. Firstly, I made those comments after my race, and I want to put things in context, because they were taken out of context. The response was actually to a question about whether I will continue competitive swimming. Some of the factors that I have to consider going forward, and I think all athletes do consider, is a) are we competing on a level playing field and is something being done about it, and b) from what we’ve seen so far, people don’t take anti-doping seriously. I really feel sorry for those athletes that just miss out on making a final, a semi-final or even a medal.
We all know that we’re not competing on a level playing field and there’s never going to be 0% doping. It’s pretty evident that there’s politics, power-plays and conflicts of interest in swimming, but there are also people that are fighting for a clean sport. As athletes, we need to consider that if people aren’t taking things seriously, what is the point of sport? Of course for most people you enjoy it, but when it becomes your way of making a living, you want to believe that you are investing your time into the sport that you love and you’re able to sustain yourself.
CN: From an athlete’s point of view, as someone who is in the system, what are some concrete steps that could be taken to make anti-doping more serious?
GC: People advocate different systems. If someone gets arrested and goes to prison, are they guilty for life? This is an ethical debate, and when it comes to doping, it’s hard to say. The positive steps that we can take is to have an independent anti-doping body that’s testing athletes. We need to review privacy when it comes to athletes as well. If swimmers are making money from swimming, then we should be treating doping as fraud. There is no reason why it should not be a criminal offence if you are found doping. That includes an athlete and all their support staff, because you would be complicit in taking someone else’s money – it’s like stealing. I believe that in Germany, doping just became a criminal offence. That’s one interesting way to help fix the problem.
Banning someone is not really harsh enough because these bans are not enforced. They say you’re not allowed to take part in organised training, but who’s policing this? Not only will an independent anti-doping body have to solve these issues, but they will also have to look at the quality of testing. Are we using the best technology out there? How quickly can you get the results? Funding for anti-doping is also an issue.
CN: What are your own personal thoughts on deterrents for doping?
GC: This is a really tricky issue. It’s my personal view that if you show some remorse you could be welcomed back to the sport. Forgiveness is something that I believe in. Some athletes who are part of a state sponsored doping program might have no idea what’s being given to them and fall foul of the rules. However, there is lots of science out there to show that the effects of doping can last a lifetime, long after an athlete is “clean” again. I am sympathetic to calls for swimmers who are caught doping to be banned for life. Ultimately, any measures are taken to protect people who are passionate about the sport.
CN: You’ve trained both in Hong Kong and also in the US, at Stanford University and The University of Michigan. What would you say were the main differences between the two?
GC: The culture of training in the two countries is very different. In the US, especially when I was competing in college swimming, there was much more of a team culture, whereas in Hong Kong we would mostly race for ourselves and there wasn’t as much of that. Especially when we were competing for National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles, there was a sense that we were swimming for our teammates, as well as for the reputation of our school. I felt that I learnt a lot of life lessons whilst swimming in the US, and competitive sport was more of a lifestyle.
Life as a student athlete was tough, having to balance full time study and training together. There was definitely greater depth in competition in the US, which allowed me to be pushed harder in terms of my swimming. There was definitely a sense of open mindedness in America which I didn’t find in Hong Kong. Coaches were more willing to think outside of the box to make practices more fun, as swimming isn’t an exciting sport. I feel like this contributes to a lot of the success of American swimmers.
CN: You’ve been supported by the government in Hong Kong during your swimming career. How has that support been? Are there areas for improvement?
GC: There is definitely room for improvement in this regard. Even though we get sent electronic surveys periodically, they’ve only really asked me for feedback verbally once. I feel that they could definitely do more in asking athletes what they think can be improved. I do appreciate the amount of money that the government has poured into sport in Hong Kong – there is goodwill in that regard. I do think that they could take a step back and see how that money is being spent. Improving software is one way in which they could move forward, especially being more open minded to different ways of running swimming.
CN: You’ve spoken about learning life goals through swimming and leaving an impact. What impact would you like your swimming career to leave?
GC: Hopefully I’ve inspired people to do things in life that they really enjoy. I hope that people are able to live three dimensional lives where they have a good balance.