Cue the Olympic moralizers, who will call for sweeping condemnations and bans. The World Anti-Doping Agency has issued a new report on the doping of more than 1,000 Russian athletes, but its contents are more embarrassing for WADA than for Vladimir Putin’s empire. Apparently the dunces at WADA wouldn’t know how to open a childproof pill bottle — unless it’s got cash in it.
WADA has long been built on shoddy science and rampant conflicts of interest but above all faulty premises. First of all, there is a profound lack of real scientific evidence about the ever-shifting substances on its banned list. Example: This year, Dutch researchers at the Center for Human Drug Research studied the effects of erythropoietin (EPO) on 48 well-trained cyclists in a race up Mont Ventoux in France. They gave half of them an EPO injection and half a placebo. The riders on EPO finished the ride on average more slowly. But WADA doesn’t care about that study or good science. It just cares about guilty findings and show trials, so it can grow its bloated bureaucracy.
Before making harsh judgments about the Russian situation, first let’s identify exactly what is so objectionable in its state-sponsored system, which included secret police swapping urine samples. WADA investigator Richard McLaren declared, “Coaches and athletes have been playing on an uneven field. Sports fans and spectators have been deceived. It’s time that this stops.” WADA’s ethics are, as usual, misplaced.
McLaren gets the award for point-missing.
It’s not that Russia federalized cheating to create an uneven playing field — lots of government-sponsored federations have systematically doped in Olympic history. It’s not even that some innocent athletes were deprived of medals they might otherwise have won. They aren’t the real victims. The ultimate victims are the Russian athletes who were forced by their government to ingest substances against their will and without informed consent or to leave their country or to submit to blackmail by strongmen. Those aren’t sporting violations. They are human rights violations.
But WADA and its overlord, the International Olympic Committee, aren’t interested in those. They never are.
WADA, headed by the IOC’s Craig Reedie, received evidence fully six years ago of a state-sponsored doping program in Russia. It sat on it. Never lifted a finger against Putin, who gave the IOC a $51 billion building project in Sochi. The coverup was blown only when a German television station embarrassed WADA with a documentary in late 2014 and a whistleblower went public. Only then was McLaren’s report commissioned.
Mainly, McLaren’s report is meant to make WADA look proactive. All he really documents is that WADA’s methods are a joke. WADA’s supposedly tamper-proof caps were simply twisted off and replaced. There was male DNA in samples from women’s hockey players. There were impossible readings of salt. All of which would have gone totally unexamined if WADA hadn’t been forced to investigate.
Russia’s state doping was conducted on an “unprecedented scale,” McLaren says. But what did it really achieve? Strikingly, not as much as you might expect. WADA contends it has specific evidence that 695 Russian athletes doped. Yet Russia won just 21 gold medals in London and 72 overall to finish fourth in the medal chart. It won 33 medals overall at the Sochi Games, 13 gold.
State-sponsored doping should be regarded as an international crime because of the power imbalance between the government and the athlete. Make no mistake about that. But it’s not at all clear that other forms of individual so-called “doping” should be penalized or are effective. WADA has done no serious study explaining, for instance, why something that simply aids in overnight recovery should be banned. There is very little solid clinical evidence on “performance enhancers” at all. A body of work doesn’t exist — for the simple reason that no one has bothered to do it. WADA’s entire code rests on air and potentially faulty assumptions
Here is a thought experiment. I’m going to describe a substance, and you decide whether using it is cheating. This substance does the following: strengthens muscle fibers, stimulates muscle cell activity, reduces tissue breakdown, aids in recovery, increases blood flow and speeds circulation. If you use it the wrong way, however, you could damage yourself. In one study, athletes who used it perform better in sprints. In another, athletes who used it showed faster restoration and increased strength and power compared with athletes who declined to use it.
Guess what it is.
This sort of thought experiment motivated the Dutch research team to look at EPO. They had doubts about its ratio of benefit to harm, as well as its true effect on race results compared with other factors. Adam Cohen, director of the Center for Human Drug Research, has noted that the winner of a race relies on a multitude of factors, including “technique, muscle power which is supplied by oxygen and glucose and amino acids and foods, on team tactics, on weather, on millions of things.” To assume that only one of these factors is the main difference is scientifically “naive,” he has said.
But his main point is this: The Mont Ventoux study is the first time anyone has sought to gauge EPO’s effect in a race. Never been done before.
Yet WADA conducts showboat trials and vicious public condemnations of athletes, and to do so, it uses lab results that aren’t always reliable.
WADA should be dismantled until we have the rigorous clinical study of performance enhancement that is so badly lacking. Forget fixing it — it can’t be fixed. Replace it with a new organization independent of the IOC charged with investigating and determining what these substances actually do.
Athletes, including the Russians, should receive a blanket amnesty so that they can participate voluntarily in studies and talk honestly about what they use and why, and understand what enhances and what doesn’t and what is truly harmful and what isn’t.