EVEN heroes make mistakes.
Ballarat jockey Michelle Payne could potentially have slipped from international golden girl to absolute disgrace in one fell swoop this week.
Payne accepted full responsibility for a mistake, was remorseful, and should be respected for that.
Drugs in sport are an incredibly dirty concept. This is particularly so in Ballarat, also hometown to Australian Olympic hero Jared Tallent, who publicly fought long and hard to wrestle 50-kilometre racewalk gold off a Russian drug cheat.
But the issue of drugs can get murky.
Tallent has said many times, he could tell out on course when the race he was contesting was not clean. He knew the Russian that beat him, and others, were defiantly tangled up in performance-enhancing substances. He called for closer attention and action.
Payne pleaded guilty on Thursday to using appetite suppressant Phentermine, which is banned under the Australian rules of racing in a sport heavily focused on weight-based athletes.
The inquiry heard a doctor prescribed Payne the drug for gastrointestinal symptoms, following on from a nasty fall in May last year. She admitted to the inquiry it helped control her weight – a split pancreas often meant Payne was hungry, according to ABC coverage.
Payne admitted she stuffed up. She knew the drug was banned but had thought it was only on race days, not for trackwork, and consequently will serve a four week ban.
Payne knows she has let her vast legion of fans down, including admirers outside racing her saw her as an inspiration as the first female Melbourne Cup winning jockey – and her strong feminist stance in the immediate Cup aftermath. This has even inspired a Hollywood movie.
She made a mistake.
It is easy to sit back and judge.
While it should never be an excuse, there are times when you need to give a hero the benefit of the doubt. This is one of those, in an arena when it would be so much easier to sit back and harshly judge Payne.
Athletes are responsible for knowing exactly what they are putting into their bodies and the rules around it, no matter how big the medical team is supporting them.
Substance rules in sport can constantly evolve and understanding them can be as intricate as knowing where a product was manufactured for certainty it was compliant, as many athletes and medical staff will attest. Payne regrets she was not thorough enough.
While Payne has challenged the racing industry and captured worldwide headlines for what she has said was a “chauvinistic” sport. But this time, Payne said she appreciated the ban “is in keeping with other penalties for riders in breach of this rule.
What happens next is important. Payne has already indicated she would work hard to be in great shape for a return to racing – pegged to be at Royal Ascot in the United Kingdom next month – and working hard to find a solution with her surgeon.
Payne has accepted her punishment and is moving on with dignity. And that is a good role model.