In the minute before she commences reading the names of each senior preparing to walk across the graduation stage, a university colleague of mine always draws chuckles from the audience. With this:
“Will all students who believe,” she says with a pause for emphasis, “they are here to accept their diploma for the bachelor of arts degree, please come forward.”
You mean, the grandparents came all the way from Poughkeepsie to see the first of their progeny’s offspring awarded a college diploma, but all they really witnessed was make-believe?
“Yes,” she assured me. “Not until after grades have been calculated” are diplomas delivered.
Via mail. Many weeks later.
It makes sense. What institution would want to give out something validating what supposedly was many years of sacrifice and hard work in the making if, in the end, it wasn’t earned? The Olympics, that’s what.
The latest tradition of the Olympics, which return in less than three weeks at Rio, is the stripping and re-rewarding of medals won through ill-gotten means, known as performance-enhancing drugs.
We’re familiar with the parade of nations, the colorful marching of each participating country’s team into the main stadium that has started the Games since 1908. We follow — though not uncomfortably as we should — the torch relay, an idea birthed by Carl Diem, the German sports czar who oversaw Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics under the patronage of Adolf Hitler.
We know the Olympic flame, which the torch relay delivers from Greece, where the Olympics were born, to a giant cauldron in the new host country’s chosen city. We anticipate the medal ceremony, when the elite of the elite are draped with gold, silver and bronze medallions before hearing the national anthem of the winner’s home country.
And now we expect the announcements of shame, which often come after everyone’s gone home, as with, for example, Darya Pishchalnikova of Russia. Months after the Closing Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics, at which Pishchalnikova won silver in the discus, she was handed a 10-year ban from competition after testing positive for a steroid called oxandrolone. It’s a drug meant for patients in need of weight gain after surgery, trauma or an illness like AIDS, or to soothe bone pain caused by osteoporosis. That’s the insidious side effect of drug cheating in sports. Athletes use drugs meant to help those in need merely to improve endurance, strength or recovery.
Pishchalnikova was one of eight medal winners in London who subsequently were stripped of their honors because they were caught doping. Pishchalnikova stood out among those stripped of medals because she was one of the Russian athletes who blew the whistle on a systematic program in which Russia filled its track and field athletes with all manner of drugs for performance-enhancing purposes.
As a result, the International Olympic Committee earlier this summer upheld a provisional ban of the Russian track and field team from competition by the governing body of the sport. (Russian athletes can petition to be allowed to compete under a neutral flag if they can demonstrate they are “clean.”) The ruling should ensure that no Russian runners, throwers and jumpers will make a mockery of the Rio Games by winning one day and being asked to hand back their medals the next.
That’s the other problem with the now-routine practice of stripping medals. The Olympic body isn’t a court of law that can demand the return of awards. It can only hope that an athlete who has cheated has enough conscience or Olympic spirit left to do the right thing after having done the wrong thing.
The absence of the Russian track and field team doesn’t, however, guarantee that the Rio Games will be embarrassment-free when it comes to drug-induced medal winners. Drug cheating is universal among countries that can afford it. At least eight medal winners from six countries were stripped of their awards from the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing because of drugs. The 2004 Summer Games in Athens resulted in at least a baker’s dozen athletes asked to return their medals, including two U.S. winners, cyclist Tyler Hamilton and sprinter Crystal Cox. Hamilton was discovered to have blood-doped; Cox admitted to using steroids.
So the list has gone since 1968, when the Games first started testing for drugs it ruled unfair. That summer at the Mexico City Olympics, Swedish modern pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall lost his medal after testing positive for alcohol. He imbibed. Two beers. Cheating has picked up speed and gotten more serious since, not to diminish Liljenwall’s combining alcohol with gunplay .
What is worrisome about the Rio Olympics is that winners will be judged under questions about the drug-testing lab there that as of Wednesday was still awaiting a stamp of approval from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which certifies drug-testing in sports everywhere. WADA shuttered the lab last month, saying it had failed to conform to international testing standards. If the lab isn’t up to snuff by the Games’ start, athletes’ samples may have to be shipped off the continent to be tested, making the process that much more complicated and in danger of compromise.
It all brings me to the remedy so many college graduations unwittingly provide to the now infamous Olympic custom of defrocking. Announce that the winners and runners-up are, as we say in political-season parlance, presumptive. Give them an Olympic receipt to be redeemed at a later date for their medals after their pee, blood and whatever other bodily fluids can be tested for illegal enhancement come back clean.
The IOC, with all its loot, can put on an international awards ball at some swanky joint in Switzerland, where it’s based, and fly in every winner and their immediate family. NBC can televise it so the real winners can get their deserving spotlight in a process that along the way dampens the peal of all the jingo bells that drown out the great individual achievements that should most be applauded.
After all, maybe the most infamous tarnished Olympic medal ceremony followed the men’s 100-meter track final at the 1988 Seoul Games. Canada’s Ben Johnson beat American Carl Lewis to the finish but two days later failed a drug test. Olympic bosses got the gold back from Johnson and, in a private ceremony in an office under the grandstand of Olympic Stadium, gave it to Lewis. Whoopee.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.