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Officials blamed for pill scandal

THE Australian team's sleeping pill debacle heading into the London Olympics was a blatant failure of management to protect athletes' mental health, according to the former president of the Australian Medical Association.

Professor Kerryn Phelps believes the team's leadership neglected its duty to attend to the ''holistic wellbeing'' of the swimmers, leading to elite competitors including Eamon Sullivan and James Magnussen taking a prescription sleeping drug Phelps rates as dangerous, unpredictable and is reluctant to prescribe to her own patients.

Phelps said the fact that the swimmers took the pills as a ''party drug'' was alarming. However, she said, that the drug was brought into the village at all suggests, at least, that athletes had anxiety about sleeping properly, revealing a failure to provide basic support.

''The whole swim team was a public exercise in poor psychological management,'' Phelps said.

''They went to London without a team psychologist. You have people lying awake wondering how they were going to perform the next day. If they had somebody professional who they could talk to and could give them some mental exercises to help them get to sleep, they wouldn't need to be taking anything.''

There have been numerous stories about sportspeople mixing Stilnox and caffeine drinks, which is said to elicit a similar effect to the drug MDMA or ''ecstasy''. The swimmers who confessed to taking the sleeping pills denied mixing it with caffeine or alcohol.


Phelps, a sports fan and formerly a competitive swimmer, said, ''I don't think we've heard the whole story'' about the 4 x 100 metres relay team. She explained that the effect of taking Stilnox on its own without trying to sleep was light-headedness or more. ''That's where the unpredictability of this drug comes in,'' she said. ''Mixing Stilnox with alcohol or caffeine can be a disaster. It's like having the accelerator and brake on in your brain at the same time. God knows what long-term effects that has on the brain.

''If people are doing high doses of caffeine and Stilnox to get a similar effect to ecstasy or cocaine, which we know has long-term effects on mood, they could be causing long-term effects on their brain.''

Phelps saw warning signs of poor psychological management when Emily Seebohm broke down poolside after claiming silver in the 100 metres backstroke.

''She should never have been let loose without preparation for the possibility of coming second,'' Phelps said.

''A team psychologist was necessary. I think it's a lesson for any future Olympics, that team cohesion and the mental health of these athletes is really important.

''What needs to be considered is not just their performance in the pool or on the track, but their holistic wellbeing while they're at the Games, all of which will impact on their performance.''

Phelps wrote in a blog on Friday that ''Zolpidem [Stilnox] is one of those medications that in my opinion just shouldn't still be on the market''.

It can lead to ''major problems'' and had ''bizarre and unpredictable effects''. It doesn't facilitate natural sleep and ''doesn't get to the root cause of why people aren't getting to sleep''.

''The fact that it was in the village in the first place meant that some athletes felt they needed it to be able to sleep,'' she said. ''The second problem is that you have a bunch of young kids, clearly without proper supervision, taking it for so-called party purposes.''