Australia's Olympic athletes will be banned from using sleeping pills, officials said Tuesday, after ex-swimming star Grant Hackett admitted to a heavy use of the sedatives while he was still competing.
Australian Olympic Committee chief John Coates said prescription medications such as the powerful sleeping pill Stilnox would be banned for the first time at London after Hackett said he had developed a "heavy reliance" on the drug.
The AOC on Monday decided to amend its team medical manual "to make it absolutely unequivocal that we do not condone and indeed we prohibit the use of Stilnox by our athletes", Coates said.
In North America the drug is marketed as Ambien.
Team doctors are being advised about the changes, which will also emphasise potential problems with caffeine use, and each discipline's squad will be briefed as they enter the Olympic village, Coates added.
"We are very worried about the vicious cycle of athletes taking caffeine as a performance enhancer and then needing to take drugs such as Stilnox to get to sleep," he told reporters in Sydney.
"We've done this because our primary obligation, our overriding obligation, is to protect the health of our athletes."
Officials will also have the power to search athletes' belongings if they are suspected of using sleeping pills and disciplinary action including suspension or early return to Australia could follow.
Coates said the changes were triggered by revelations from Hackett, dual gold medallist in the 1500m freestyle, that by the end of his career he had a "heavy reliance" on Stilnox, first prescribed to him by team doctors.
"I do not know the extent of it across the other sports and we're not going to conduct some sort of witch-hunt over this," the Australian official said.
But he added that evidence about the drug's possible risks justified the stance the committee was taking.
The AOC chief said athletes would instead be encouraged to practise meditation and other relaxation techniques in London.
If "in extreme circumstances" they still needed prescription sedatives, the short-acting and less addictive agent temazepam would be used, Coates said.
Coates said Hackett told him he was first prescribed Stilnox at the 2003 World Swimming Championships in Barcelona, and that it was doled out to swimmers as "normal practice" at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Australian team doctors "moved away" from use of the drug in 2007 after becoming aware of its sometimes dangerous side-effects, which can include walking and driving cars while asleep.
The powerful sedative has a controversial history in Australia, where it was linked to the 2007 death of a woman who died after falling from the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Coates said that Hackett continued privately taking the drug at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and had told him there was still "widespread use" of Stilnox at Beijing, claims backed by fellow swimmers Ashley Callus and Michael Klim.
Hackett has said he stopped taking the drug when his career ended after the Beijing Games, where he took silver in the 1,500m.
His former coach Dennis Cotterell said Hackett's Stilnox use "absolutely" cost him another gold medal at Beijing, with reports he had been sleep-walking in the Olympic village and fell over during a flight while on the drug.
"He couldn't sleep so he took the Stilnox to settle his nerves," Cotterell told The Australian newspaper.
"For sure that contributed to his lack of clarity in the 1500m final. I've got no doubts about that."
Hackett, a one-time captain of the Australian swimming team, has said his use of the pills "scared me" and described them as "evil."