If a pill or injection could make you the best in your field, would you take it? Even if that was cheating and might damage your health? For the likes of Lance Armstrong and Ben Johnson, and apparently Russia’s Ministry of Sports, the answer was “bring it on.” The temptation is only heightened when state-of-the-art stimulants are undetectable in the latest drug tests. But the advantage in this long-running cat-and-mouse game may be swinging back toward anti-doping authorities, thanks to the prolonged storage of test samples. That’s allowed specimens to be reanalyzed using newer technologies, resulting in the nabbing of dozens of abusers who thought they had got away with it. Combine that threat with the ever-present risk from whistleblowers, and drug cheats may rest a little less easy.
In December, the International Olympic Committee barred the Russian team from the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, though clean Russian athletes will be allowed to compete under a neutral flag. It was the latest fallout from an independent investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency that confirmed allegations of Russian state-sponsored doping — first leveled in 2016 by a whistle-blower who ran the Moscow laboratory responsible for Olympic drug testing. The inquiry, led by Richard McLaren, a Canadian law professor, concluded that a scheme to obscure positive dope-test results involved about 1,000 Russian athletes from 2011 to 2015, including at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. For the 2016 Rio Olympics, the IOC rejected the doping agency’s call to disqualify Russia, though its track and field team was banned following revelations by a whistle-blowing runner who was labeled “Judas” by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia was later stripped of six gold medals and lost its top ranking from the Sochi Games following the re-analysis of athlete samples. Retesting is an increasingly effective backup for anti-doping authorities: Some 98 athletes — including at least 40 medalists — were snared using samples stored from the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Summer Olympics. Among the guilty parties, track and field, weightlifting and Russians dominated.
Athletes for centuries have sought a chemical edge. The ancient Greeks used alcoholic concoctions and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Taking stimulants was an accepted practice when Thomas Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon race — and almost died — after a mixture of brandy and strychnine got him to the finish line. Within a decade, Austrian horses had tested positive (cocaine and heroin were commonly administered) in some of the earliest incidents of illegal doping. The Olympics began prohibiting drug-taking in the 1960s but has long struggled to keep up with the dopers. The most popular methods have included blood doping (via injections of the hormone EPO or blood transfusions) and taking anabolic steroids or human growth hormone. Cycling, baseball and track and field have experienced decades of scandals and high-profile tumbles from grace. The doping Hall of Fame includes the likes of Major League Baseball’s Alex Rodriguez, cyclist Lance Armstrong and sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones. State-sponsored doping programs are nothing new; the East German swimming team that dominated the 1976 Olympics later sued the government for feeding athletes anabolic steroids.
Critics of the existing system maintain that the crusade against doping has failed. The anti-doping agency missed the Russian conspiracy entirely until a whistle-blower stepped forward. Some support a doping free-for-all for substances that do not pose health risks. That, opponents say, would reduce sports to a competition about taking the best stimulants and would have worrying implications for youth and amateur sports. They note a catalogue of suspicious deaths possibly related to performance-enhancing drugs. A survey from the 1980s revealed that most elite athletes would take a drug that guaranteed success but killed them within five years. A 2012 poll posing the same question (the Goldman dilemma) yielded a result of about 1 percent. Anti-doping enforcers say drug-taking will never be eradicated but that they need additional investigatory powers and financial support to keep notching small victories. According to Dick Pound, the former long-serving head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, sports remains in “a state of catatonic and unpersuasive denial” and too many people involved do not want the anti-doping system to work.
First published July
To contact the writer of this QuickTake: Grant Clark in Singapore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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