When the International Olympic Committee announced last weekend that it would not ban the entire Russian Olympic team from next month’s Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro over allegations of systemic doping, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s chief executive, Travis Tygart, called the ruling a “blow to the rights of clean athletes.”
Tygart is correct: The IOC missed an opportunity to punish nations that put national pride before clean sport.
But Olympic organizers’ reluctance to hammer-throw the Russians is only the latest chapter in a relatively new campaign to change an elite-sport culture that has always enlisted chemistry — both to push the boundaries of human performance and to broadcast the potency of nation-states. When Russians take the field in Rio, they will parade not only state-managed corruption but also the difficulty of imposing chemical-free order on sports.
The World Anti-Doping Agency strives to preserve what it calls “the spirit of sport” — an athletic “celebration of the human spirit, body and mind.” The brainchild of Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the original spirit of sport was a defense against class revolutions taking place after the Industrial Revolution. The first Olympic Games, in 1896, were conceived as a sanctuary for gentleman amateurs, a “religion with its church, dogmas, service,” Coubertin enthused. Until 1988, pro athletes — inherently inferior in aristocratic eyes — were barred from the Olympics.
It turns out, though, that if there is an essence of elite and professional sports, it is enlisting technology to expand the limits of the human body . (That, and entertaining fans in the interest of making money.)
Professional sports are a child of the Industrial Revolution. When immigrant textile laborers in England formed Manchester United in 1878 and munitions workers joined as the Arsenal Football Club in 1886, promoters cashed in selling tickets to their matches, and to other spectacles such as six-day bicycle races at Madison Square Garden. Labor-intensive sports including cycling, long-distance walking and running were spiritual brethren to milling steel or extracting coal. The public had no more reason to judge a cyclist who used stimulants than a mineworker who made nicotine an essential part of his workday.
After British-American runner Charles Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon with the help of brandy and strychnine, physician and Olympic chronicler Charles Lucas wrote that Hicks was “kept in mechanical action by the use of drugs, that he might bring to America the Marathon honors.” Lucas added that Hicks’s success showed that “drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road.”
That nonjudgmental attitude carried on for decades. In 1941, influential American exercise physiologist Peter Karpovich observed in a medical journal that “the use of a substance or device which improves the physical performance of a man without being injurious to his health, can hardly be called unethical.”
Drugs began their transition from athlete trade tool to instrument of moral decay in 1960, when Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen died at the Rome Olympics. Competing in a 62-mile race without water on a scorching day, Jensen collapsed, hit his bare head and broiled in an uncooled tent for two hours before dying. Though his autopsy reported only heat stroke, news stories based on unfounded rumors made amphetamines into the killer. Like the millions in 1960 who swallowed stimulants to brighten their mood, lose weight or get a job done, cyclists had been happily using speed since it became commercially available as Benzedrine in 1937. But Jensen’s death helped precipitate the first European medical conferences on drugs in sports in the early 1960s. Reacting to better understanding of amphetamine addiction, media hysteria and countercultural social anxieties, the IOC introduced drug tests at the 1968 Winter Games.
Even before that, crude nationalism had also hijacked what Coubertin called his pure and “glittering dream of ancient Olympism.” Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Games as a propaganda spectacle to prove that Germany was great again. Later, the Cold War brought sporting nationalism to a new level. In 1945, Pravda announced 80 state-sponsored sport schools where Soviet athletes would assert the superiority of the communist system. Commenting on his native country’s preparations for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Russian sportswriter Yevgeny Rubin noted in the New York Times that Olympic victories were “one of the largest-caliber guns of the propaganda arsenal.”
Alarmed, in 1955, future IOC president Avery Brundage warned Saturday Evening Post readers that Americans had become “a race of grandstand and bleacher sitters.” Unless it got its Olympic act together, the United States was “doomed to a secondary position in the world of sports.”
Brundage was right. In Melbourne in 1956, the Soviets won 98 medals to the Americans’ 74. A year later, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik. When the Soviets pulverized an American hoops squad at the 1959 world amateur basketball championships in Chile, a Santiago paper mocked, “When it comes to shooting at the moon or at a basket, the United States cannot keep up with Russia.”
Meanwhile, in Soviet-occupied East Germany, Olympians benefited from the sports-science resources of some 1,500 researchers, 1,000 doctors and 4,700 coaches. As one East German doctor told the New York Times in 1976, athletes were supported “just like mission control when an astronaut is sent into space.”
Geopolitics, it turned out, trumped concerns about doping: The mission included anabolic steroids. Though physicians had been aware of steroid health risks since the 1960s, the IOC did not ban the synthetic hormones until testing became available for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. To foil these new anti-drug efforts, in 1977, East Germany built an IOC-accredited drug lab in Kreischa, where athletes were tested to ensure they were clean before competing abroad. The lab helped Soviet-bloc athletes in two ways: They made sure performance-enhancing drugs were out of their system before leaving the country, and because it also tested samples from outside East Germany, it gave them a sense of how other nations were doping. Documentation revealed after the collapse of East Germany showed that some 3,000 Stasi police agents made sure that neither physicians nor athletes resisted annual administration of 2 million doses of steroids, even when those drugs had devastating effects. The lab also gave Soviet doctors warning when their dosing triggered positives in Russian athletes. It was a model for the use of government resources and IOC cooperation to tilt the sporting odds.
The United States noticed. U.S. weightlifter Bill Starr told Sports Illustrated in 1969 that American athletes “are usually a long way behind the Russians in drug use.” The 23 athletes who tested positive at the 1976 U.S. Olympic track and field trials suggested that without either a formal pharmaceutical program to measure doses or a test facility devoted to making sure no one was caught, American doping was, indeed, an ad hoc mess.
The communist athletic space race delivered. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, the U.S.S.R. took home 103 medals to 71 for the United States. In Munich in 1972, the Soviets bagged 50 gold medals to the Yanks’ 33. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the U.S.S.R. and East Germany took 215 medals to the United States’ 94.
Congress responded with the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, a law that assigned all Olympic organizing authority to the U.S. Olympic Committee. The act paid for the country’s newly focused Olympic efforts by granting the USOC the right to license the Olympic symbols to corporations. This financial structure created tension between sponsors who used the Olympics to polish their brands and an increasingly aggressive anti-doping bureaucracy whose actions scandalized athletes and fans.
The growing anti-doping forces exercised their clout at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, where drug-testing machines popped 15 competitors. Word of the positives sent 12 American track and field athletes packing before ever putting a spike on the track.
Wanting to avoid similar awkwardness at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the USOC screened U.S. athletes at UCLA’s lab before the Games. Because the tests were informational and not official, of the 86 Americans who were positive, only two were denied spots on the Olympic team. During the final week of the Games, some 20 medal winners, many from track and field disciplines, tested positive. When a document linking athletes’ names to the urine samples mysteriously disappeared from an IOC hotel room, the doped victors kept their medals. In 1999, IOC scientist Arnold Beckett told the BBC that the Olympic committee was making a show of “trying to prevent drug misuse in sport. But please don’t get too many positives, which will tend to damage the image of sport.” IOC medical director Alexandre de Merode said he was reluctant to speak about the 1984 scandal because “it would perhaps destroy credibility.”
These days, financial concerns, not Cold War posturing, counterbalance attitudes about doping. Ever since the 1984 L.A. Games — forced by a local ballot measure that denied the organizers any public funding — showed how much cash the Olympics could generate from television rights and sponsorships, the IOC has left behind Coubertin’s moldering warnings about the “serious dangers” of mixing sports with moneymaking and turned the Olympics into a commercial extravaganza. Pro athletes are welcome, and today it costs upward of $200 million to become an official Olympic partner. That money comes with a license for corporations to drape their brand in youthful possibility, human achievement and global unity.
Admitting that an entire country — in this case, Russia — blithely flouts all the doping rules would undermine this commercial contract by defiling the sanctifying myth of Olympic purity. It would also expose the IOC to enormously costly legal liability. World Anti-Doping Agency studies indicate that testing snares less than 2 percent of doped athletes. Changing sports’ enduring chemical traditions is hard compared with kicking doping scandals down the road to independent sport federations, as the IOC just did with the Russians.
Sending all Russians packing from Rio would have relayed a comforting message that sports can be an island of chemical and moral purity, and that we might someday return to Coubertin’s fantasy of fair play. Ultimately, though, that the IOC instead steamrolled the World Anti-Doping Agency and gave Russia a pass is no surprise. Commercial and geopolitical interests are still stronger than the moral reductionism of anti-doping missionaries.