Tomorrow marks the mid-point of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Despite my concerns about the threat posed by the Zika virus – shared by a significant majority of scientists, infectious disease physicians and public health experts but largely ignored by the World Health Organization and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – the Games have gone on as scheduled. Whether or not that is a blunder of epidemic proportions remains to be seen, but in the meantime I’ve been enjoying the international spectacle that is the Olympics.
In addition to enjoying the athletic competition, I’ve been following the other various dramas, scandals and controversies surrounding the Games closely. This includes the acrimonious rivalries between different athletes and different countries (sometimes descending into less-than subtle threats of physical harm on social media), the rampant sexism of sports journalists and correspondents, and the public protests by Rio’s citizens over bribery, crime, corruption and waste. But what is most interesting to me personally is the controversy surrounding the presence (and exclusion) of Russian athletes at this year’s Games.
Late last month, despite evidence of an extensive state-sanctioned doping program, the IOC decided against imposing a blanket ban on Russian athletes in Rio. Rather, over the complaints of organizations like the World Anti-Doping Federation and the Institute of National Anti-Doping Organizations, the IOC shifted that burden to the 28 individual sports federations that make up the summer Olympics. A mere twelve days before the official start of the Rio Games, those ill-equipped and over-burdened federations were asked to take on the complicated task of scrutinizing the individual anti-doping histories of nearly 400 Russian athletes.
A few federations, like the International Association of Athletics Federations, cleared only a handful to compete; of 62 Russian track and field competitors, only two were cleared (including Yuliya Stepanova, a middle-distance runner who blew the whistle on Russia’s doping program after she herself was caught using performance-enhancing drugs). By contrast, the Fédération Internationale de Natation, which oversees all aquatic competitions, cleared over 60 Russian athletes and banned but a few. All told, over 70 percent of Russia’s Olympic team was belatedly and hastily cleared for competition.
That some athletes will resort to using performance-enhancing drugs to gain an edge over their rivals is nothing new. Athletes competing in the original Olympic Games in Ancient Greece would use so-called ‘magic’ potions in order to improve their performance. As far back as then, the practice was prohibited and those caught cheating were banned and publicly shamed. However, it was only after the death of Danish cyclist Knud Jensen at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome that a concerted effort to ban the use of performance-enhancing drugs in international sport began. Mr. Jensen died as a result of injuries sustained in a crash, and the autopsy revealed that he was under the influence of amphetamine at the time of the accident. In response, the IOC banned the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 1967.
Testing of Olympic athletes for drugs began the following year at the 1968 Mexico City Games, with Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall being the first to test positive for a then banned substance (alcohol). Since then, over 200 Olympic athletes have tested positive for otherwise prohibited drugs. The actual number of competitors using performance-enhancing drugs is likely much higher, calling into question the integrity and credibility of Olympic competition and even the Games themselves.
As I’ve written about before, organizations like the World Anti-Doping Agency face a daunting and thankless task. While random drug tests can (and are) be used to test athletes for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, such tests are usually performed on the day of competition. But most performance-enhancing drugs are used only during training, leaving plenty of time for the drugs to wash out and become undetectable. More frequent out-of-competition testing could combat this, an approach that is very expensive and time-consuming.
Similarly, many athletes use novel drugs for which anti-doping tests do not yet exist. The only way to combat this is to store and reanalyze samples as new drug tests become available. But this does little to combat the problem in real time, and the legality of stripping someone of a title when they test positive for a drug that wasn’t on the list of prohibited substances at the time of competition is questionable. For example, Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova recently received a two-year ban after testing positive for the drug meldonium. While she’d been using that performance-enhancing drug for over ten years, its use was only banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency at the end of 2015. She has not been stripped of her previous titles, and corporate sponsors like Nike have yet to drop her.
Finally, as the still unfolding Russian scandal suggests, poorly funded and over extended anti-doping agencies are competing with state-sanctioned doping programs. Of the 33 Olympic medals won by Russia at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, over a third were awarded to individuals whose names appear on lists maintained by that government’s clandestine doping program. None of these athletes tested positive for banned substances during the Games, demonstrating just how effective Russia’s doping program is. Other countries likely have similar programs, including competitive powerhouses like China (if the claims of dissent Chinese athletes are to be believed).
Don’t get me wrong: most of the athletes at the Rio Games are honest. For every one using performance-enhancing drugs, there are hundreds more who are clean. This includes many of the Russians who are competing under a cloud. Moreover, I don’t blame the athletes who were caught up in that country’s systematic doping program; it is hard to refuse to participate in a program that is run by a non-democratic, authoritarian government like Putin’s.
Rather, I blame the IOC for failing to take a strong if controversial stance against doping by banning the entire Russian team. I also blame a culture of competition that emphasizes winning at all costs rather than celebrating the more important cultural and communal values promoted by sports. Until we stop treating winning athletes as commodities, lauding and rewarding the success of gold medal winners like Michael Phelps while ignoring the tenacity and spirit of those he outswam, we will never truly solve the doping problem.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on August 11, 2016, and is available on the WAMC website.]