A Kiwi former Olympian has called for swimmers who test positive for performance enhancers to be banned from the sport for life.

Testy tiffs between swimmers over claims of drug cheating have threatened to supersede the action in the pool in Rio.

After open spats between Australia's Mack Horton and China's Sun Yang, and the 'good versus evil' rivalry between American Lilly King and Russian Yulia Efamova, former swimmer Moss Burmester said a lack of action from the International Olympic Committee has forced athletes to become activists against drug cheats.

"Swimmers for a long time have known that the system is broken and not working, they don't have trust in it," Burmester told the Herald.

"For the IOC to not come out and put that blanket ban on Russia when it was just blatantly open what they'd done has basically opened the door for athletes to be able to speak out. They haven't done their job at all, the IOC has completely copped out.

"It gives clean athletes the right to say something without having their heads taken off which has previously been the case."

Burmester said the harshest penalty should be given to swimmers who are caught using drugs - a life ban from the sport.

The two-time Olympian has urged athletes to step down from the dais in protest at the IOC's stance on Russian athletes, and opened up about his own experience competing against swimmers who had an unfair advantage.

"I've been there, and I knew there were athletes who were doping.

"But at the end of the day you're still there trying to do your best. Yes it's really frustrating but you're also trying to beat them, and it feels amazing when you are clean and you beat people who have been cheating."

He said the athletes would be avoiding letting the disputes have an impact on their performance.

"It's been your dream since you were a little kid, you're trying not to let it get to you."

Burmester said sweeping reforms of swimming's governing bodies were needed.

"It needs to be athlete-driven and focused and [athletes] need to be given the mandate and the power to set the rules and set the structure.

"I bet you if you asked athletes what they wanted in terms of bans for cheats, they wouldn't say a two-year ban or a four-year ban, it'd most likely be a lifetime ban from the sport. You'd see things completely change."

Australian swimmer Mack Horton labelled Sun Yang of China a drug cheat before beating him in the 400m freestyle final, due to Sun's three-month ban for doping in 2014.

"I used the words drug cheat because he tested positive," Horton said.

"He's one of the athletes here who has tested positive."


His calls were echoed by France's Camille Lacourt, who told French radio that Sun "pisses purple" after the Chinese swimmer won the 200m freestyle.

"When I see the 200m podium I want to be sick.

"I have the impression I am looking at athletics, with two or three doped in each final."

Lacourt called on the international governing body FINA to do more to address the issue.

"I hope that FINA is going to react and stop this massacre, because it is getting sad."

Inspired by Horton, American gold-medallist Lilly King called out Russia's Yulia Efimova before their 100m breaststroke final.

Efimova had previously been banned for using anabolic steroids, and after another ban for using meldonium in March she was only allowed to compete in Rio due to a reprieve from the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

"You're shaking your finger number one, and you've been caught for drug cheating," King said to Efimova after both swimmers won their semi-finals.

"I'm just not a fan," she later added.

"If that's what she feel she needs to be able to compete, whatever, that's her deal... I'm here to compete clean for the US," the 19-year-old said.

Their final was framed as a 'good vs evil' battle along Cold War lines, with Jones taking the gold ahead of Efimova.

At a press conference after the race, Jones also took aim at one of her fellow Americans, sprinter Justin Gatlin, who has served two suspensions for failing drug tests during his career.

King said he shouldn't be included in the American track and field team for Rio.

"I have to respect [the IOC's] decision even if it's not something I necessarily agree with," she said.

"Do I think people who were caught for doping offences should be on the team? No I don't.

"It's unfortunate that we have to see that and it's such a toss-up between sports and between countries. It's something that needs to be set in stone to settle this."

It has been revealed that Efimova was one of two convicted drug cheats who escaped testing for five months last year.

Efimova and Ning Zetao of China were not tested by FINA in the five months immediately after they each won at the world championships.

They were only subjected to testing by their own national bodies, whose programmes have been discredited.

Athletes from other countries were outraged at the revelation, as Australian relay champion Melanie Wright called for FINA to be thrown out.

Five-time gold medallist Ian Thorpe has backed the outspoken stance of athletes against performance enhancing drugs and said there needs to be harsher punishments for doping, but he also made the point that each case is different.

"What the athletes are saying and what we're hearing is 'we want stricter policy'," Thorpe told Fox Sports.

"I don't know if I agree with the attitude, 'once a drug cheat, always a drug cheat' - I think there is space and there needs to be room within policy for small mistakes."