Olympics & Doping: Gaming The Games
Is The Desire To Win Against All Costs Just Human Nature?
Since Ancient Greece, athletes have been trying to find ways to gain an edge over their fellow competitors. Historians speculate that this was the reason men were required to compete naked at early Olympics - to prevent the use of additional equipment that might give them an unfair advantage, and to prevent women from competing in events designed for men.
Despite strict rules against cheating, early athletes drank "magic potions", ate exotic meats, and rubbed oils on their body even though getting caught resulted in severe punishment such as public whippings, massive fines, and a permanent reminder of the shameful offence being inscribed on statues lining the pathway to the Olympic stadium.
Not much has changed today, despite the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially banning the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in 1967. Perhaps PEDs have become a little less poisonous (strychnine was used to prop up the flailing Thomas Hicks in the 1904 marathon). But then again, taking into account the long-term consequences, maybe not.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC): Zero Tolerance To Doping
The IOC oversees the implementation of doping controls by the Organising Committees for the Olympic Games and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Producing clean athletes is a top priority for the IOC.
But policing drug taking is not easy. Laboratory tests can only test for specific substances, and it is relatively simple for clandestine manufacturers of PEDs to slightly modify the drug as to make it undetectable by current tests. In the past, drugs such as norbolethone (Genabol) - a steroid that has never been marketed for commercial use - has been favored by athletes seeking an undetectable edge.
Which is why the IOC reanalyses previously negative drug tests as new testing methods or techniques become available. In the second-wave of the most recent reanalysis of tests from the 2008 London and 2012 Beijing Olympics, a further 45 athletes tested positive for banned substances bringing the total number of failed tests to 98. From the 30 failed tests sourced from Beijing athletes, at least twenty-three were medalists.
For competition events, generally all top five finishers plus two others are tested for prohibited substances. Over 5000 tests were conducted during the 2008 London Olympics, and a similar, if not higher number of tests are expected at Rio.
State-Funded Doping Of The Entire East German Olympic Team
It took the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 to uncover the widespread, systematic doping of East German athletes, some as young as eight.
Despite several Olympians publicly accusing the East Germans of using PEDs during the 1976 and other games, no investigations at the time were conducted by Olympic officials and the complainants were often vilified and dismissed as sore-losers, most notably U.S. swimmer Shirley Babashoff, a pre-Olympics gold medal favorite who lost three times to East German swimmers. Between 1972 and 1980, East Germany more than doubled its medal tally and more than 500 medals were won in the twenty years to 1988.
But this win-at-all-costs mentality came at a terrible price. Depression, heart disease, degenerative bone disease, drug and alcohol abuse, infertility and birth defects plague former members of East Germany's sporting elite. Some, like shot putter Heidi Kruger, changed sex after testosterone robbed her of her femininity and now teaches children about the dangers of steroid abuse. Weightlifter Roland Schmidt was pumped so full of steroids he grew 36DD breasts, that were later surgically removed. An estimated 10,000 athletes were thought to have been on the state-sponsored doping program from 1972 to 1989, many unknowingly or without parent permission.
In March, 2016, the German government approved a law which compensates all former doping victims with a one-off payment of 10,500 euros ($11,770). A small victory considering the life-robbing problems many now face.
1980 Moscow Olympics: The Chemist's Games?
The 1980 Moscow Olympics were memorable for two reasons: 65 countries boycotted the games because of the 1979 Soviet War in Afghanistan, and nobody tested positive for banned substances - officially that is.
IOC officials lauded the result as evidence that their increased vigilance regarding PEDs had paid off. The eminent Cologne-based physician, Manfred Donike, a member of the IOC Medical Commission, uncovered a different reason.
Donike forwarded data he had collected to the Australian government in 1989, who at the time were submitting a bid for the 2000 Olympics to be held in Sydney. The data contained results of secret tests he had carried out after the Moscow games which used a new technique for measuring abnormal levels of testosterone. These tests showed unusual levels of testosterone in 10 male and nine female medal-winning athletes who had formerly passed tests conducted during the event; 16 of whom had won gold. Donike's report concluded: “The Moscow Games might as well have been called the Chemists’ Games” and that “there was hardly a medal winner at the Moscow Games, certainly not a gold medal winner, who is not on one sort of drug or another – usually several kinds."
Donike has since died and there is no evidence that the results of those tests were ever passed onto the main IOC body nor considered by the WADA, although the new technique has since been added to their testing protocol.
Blood Boosting The 1984 USA Cycling Team
Before the 1984 Los Angeles games, U.S. cycling teams had not enjoyed medal success since 1912.
The drought was to end in spectacular fashion, with the team bringing home nine medals, four of them gold. Months after the games ended, five of the squads medalists, and three others confessed to having used blood transfusions.
The idea of blood boosting was initially floated by Ed Burke in 1983, the technical director to the cycling squad who also held a PhD in physiology. Blood boosting (or blood doping as it is also called) takes blood from an athlete months before a race, separates off the red cells and stores them for re-infusion just before the major event. This enhances the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, enhancing performance. Burke discussed the idea with the U.S. Olympic committee and the cycling federation who stalled on the subject and the idea was shelved. That was until Danny van Haute, a rider seeking to gain selection and whose father-in-law happened to be a doctor, took the concept to fruition and independently organised a blood transfusion. His subsequent performance at the trials won him selection and served to encourage other riders to make use of blood transfusions at the games themselves.
Not all the squad riders took part. One gold medal cyclist, Connie Carpenter, refused and confessed her dismay and disgust for the procedure later in an interview with Sports Illustrated, blaming the coaching staff for allowing transfusions to take place. It was actually surprising nobody died, as blood transfusions can be inherently dangerous, carrying a risk of not only allergic reactions but also the transmission of infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. With no time to allow for replenishment following blood extraction from each athlete, blood was taken from friends and relatives instead and transfused covertly in hotel bedrooms just before the start of a race.
Although officially not banned by the IOC at the time (because there was no test for it), it was definitely frowned upon, and the confession took the sheen very quickly off the U.S. cycling teams success.
Johnson Vs Lewis: The Dirtiest Race In History
One of the most anticipated races of all times was the 100 meter sprint final between Canadian Ben Johnson and American Carl Lewis at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Johnson catapulted from the blocks like a bullet and broke the world record in a phenomenal 9.79 seconds, leaving his competitors for dead. Two days later, the Canadian hero sensationally went from victor to villain as news broke that he had tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid stanozolol.
The gold was subsequently handed to second-placed Lewis. Remarkably, Lewis himself had failed three tests for banned substances just two months prior to the Seoul Olympics, which under IOC rules at the time should have prevented him from competing. But the U.S. Olympic Committee overturned the ban after the athlete said he had ingested the stimulants mistakenly in a herbal supplement, and he was allowed to compete. In 2003, Lewis publicly stated he was one of hundreds of U.S. athletes whose positive tests were covered up. In total, six out of the eight men in that final line up of the 100 meter sprint would eventually be linked to doping.
In the aftermath that followed Johnson's medal stripping, authorities attempted to undercover just how rampant drug doping was in sport and how it could be stopped. More than twenty five years later, has anything actually changed? With higher financial stakes than ever and even more sophisticated drugs, perhaps curbing the use of PEDs was only ever going to be a fantasy.
Marion Jones: The Fall From Grace Of A U.S. Sports Darling
Marion Jones was destined to be great. As athletic as she was beautiful, she won the California 100 meter state title four years running and turned down an offer to join the 1992 U.S. Olympic team at age 17 in favor of a basketball scholarship at The University of North Carolina. Her team went on to win the 1994 National Championship, with Jones as the freshman point guard. But her most notable success came at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, winning three golds and two bronze medals. Her good looks catapulted her into the world of sports sponsorship and contracts with Nike, Oakley and Tag Heuer. As one of the first Black women to break through the barriers of notoriously racist marketing companies, Marion Jones became a multi-million dollar empire.
In 2008, Jones went to prison for six months. She was found guilty of lying to IRS Special Agent Jeff Novitzky about taking PEDs and was ordered to surrender all of her medals from the 2000 summer Olympics. In addition, she was required to publicly flagellate herself. Her drug taking was linked to the infamous Victor Conte, head of BALCO, a supplements company that also offered blood and urine testing. The BALCO scandal uncovered a sophisticated ring of blood testing and PEDs that involved not only track and field athletes but baseball and NFL players as well. Investigations uncovered at least 27 athletes who subsequently received suspensions or fines for knowingly or "unwittingly" taking BALCO-supplied PEDs.
Shape-Shifting Bulgarian Weight Lifters
The 2000 Sydney Olympics also saw the whole of the Bulgarian weightlifting team expelled from the games.
Ivan Ivanor was the first Bulgarian weight lifter to test positive for furosemide, a banned diuretic used to quickly remove fluids from a weight lifter's body, allowing him to drop down to a specific weight. Two days later the IOC also disqualified gold medalist Izabela Dragneva and bronze medalist Sevdalin Minchev.
This wasn't the first time a whole team of Bulgarian weight lifters had used dirty tactics to get them ahead. In 1988 in Seoul, the team was withdrawn after two gold-medal winning lifters - Mitko Grubler and Angel Guenchev - also tested positive for furosemide.
Unfortunately, Bulgarian weight-lifting doesn't seem to have learnt its lesson. In 2008, the team didn't even make it to the Beijing Olympics because of 11 failed doping checks. Even a temporary stripping of its licence in 2009 failed to curb widespread doping and in November 2015, 11 lifters tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid stanozolol. The Bulgarian Weightlifting Federation (BWF) received a U.S. $500,000 fine and were banned from competing at the Rio Olympics.
Sochi: Russia Out To Win No Matter The Cost
News reports and scandals leading up to Rio have confirmed what most people suspect; PED use is still rife and widespread. No doubt this brings no encouragement to legitimate PED-free athletes about to compete.
Russia has seen almost a third of its athletes implicated in a state-directed doping scandal, with many banned from competing in the 2016 games. Evidence showing widespread PED use was presented in the form of damning conversations held between coaches and athletes before the Sochi Olympics, secretly-recorded by ex-Russian runner, Yulia Stepanova, and her husband Vitaly Stepanov, a former employee of Russia’s state-run anti-doping agency. In May this year, that information was collaborated by Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, who fled Russia for the U.S. after a series of unexplained deaths among other top Russian anti-doping officials. Rodchenkov confessed to feeding athletes a cocktail of PEDs mixed with either whiskey or vermouth, and to replacing more than 1,400 tainted urine samples with clean ones.
One driving force behind Russia's widespread doping was undoubtedly their previous dismal performance at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Out of a total haul of 15 medals, only three were gold - their second worst medal tally in their winter games participation history. Russian's took it as a national humiliation. But all pride was restored when in 2014, they topped the medal table with a total of 33 medals, including 13 golds, in Sochi.
Finished: Olympics And Doping: Gaming The Games
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- Ben Johnson: The story that shook the world. ESPN. Sept 26, 2013. Accessed 4 Aug 2016 at http://en.espn.co.uk/athletics/sport/story/241555.html
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- Rio 2016 Olympics: Russia to have their bans lifted in doping shambles 3 Aug 2016. Accessed 4 Aug 2016 at The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/olympics/2016/08/03/rio-2016-olympics-russia-to-have-their-bans-lifted-in-doping-sha/