drug den clearance picture

I can’t get this image out of my mind. It seems so foreign to the spirit of athletic competition on the one hand, and yet it is as entwined in world-class competition as excellent coaches and dedicated training.


The image I am referring to is a particular odious one, described in the book, The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final, by Richard Moore. The Second World Athletics Championships were held in Rome, Italy in August 1987, a year prior to the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul Korea. Ben Johnson has set a world record in the 100 meters with a time of 9.83 seconds, beating rival Carl Lewis who also had a personal best of 9.93 seconds.

Moore related a story told by Doug Clement, a former Olympic middle-distance runner who was a coach and a doctor for the Canadian Olympic Association, and was at those World Athletics Championships in Rome.

Stadio dei Marmi
The Stadio dei Marmi, Rome.

Next to the Olympic Stadium was one of Mussolini’s smaller excesses, the Stadio dei Marmi, the Stadium of the Marbles, filled with statues depicting athletes in classical poses, which during the championships was being used as a warm-up area. ‘Inside it was a catacomb-like area, lots of little rooms,’ recalls Clement. ‘They were dark and dingy, there were multiple caves. There were syringes everywhere. All over the floor. It was like a drug den.’

It was a drug den – and a metaphor for the sport. In the sunshine of the Stadio Olympico the triumphant championships were played out in front of 75,000 people; near by, in the shadows of the statues that adorned the Stadio dei Marmi, lay the dingy reality.”

A year later, Ben Johnson won the gold medal at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, only to have it stripped from him after testing positive for drugs in his system.

ben johnson.,_Koreajpg

chicago blackhawks 2015 stanley cup champions

THREE – Chicago Black Hawks and Nine Olympians Take the Stanley Cup: The Chicago Blackhawks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4 games to 2 for their sixth NHL championship. On that Chicago team were Kimmo Timonen whose long and distinguished career included bronze and silver medals for Team Finland in 1998, 2006, 2010, 2014; Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith who won gold for Team Canada in 2010 and 2014 in Sochi, along with fellow Canadians Patrick Sharp and Brent Seabrook who won gold medal in 2014; Patrick Kane who won silver on the USA team in 2010; Johnny Oduya, Marcus Kruger, Niklas Hjalmarsson who won silver on the Swedish team in Sochi in 2014; Brad Richards Canada: who competed for Team Canada in 2006; and Marian Hossa of Slovakia who competed in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Platini and Blatter

TWO – FIFA Scandal and Ban: The FIFA Ethics Committee banned FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA head and FIFA heir apparent Michel Platini from all football-related activities for eight years, sparking hopes of greater transparency and an end to corruption and bribes which impact FIFA decisions. For a brilliant explanation of the scandal by John Oliver, all the way back in June, 2014, watch this video.


Russia Track Banned.jpg

ONE – Russia Track and Field Team Banned: After it was revealed that Russian athletes were illegally doping thanks to a state-run program, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) decides in November to suspend the All-Russia Athletic Federation, essentially all Russian track and field athletes, from participating in international competitions, including the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics. Here is the documentary that sparked the investigation.

See this link for 13 through 15, 10 through 12, 7 through 9, and 4 through 6.

red blood cells

The fuel for muscles are oxygen. The more oxygen, the more rapidly and powerfully muscles can flex. Some people thanks to their genetic makeup have a significantly higher aerobic capacity, or ability to consume oxygen, which enables them to go harder and faster in highly aerobic sports like running, swimming or biking over longer distances.

In the 1970s, those seeking to gain an edge used hormone treatments, for example epitestosterone. The sometimes dramatic effects on the body created suspicion of doping, particularly with regards to the East German team. But a new treatment, which was at the time legal, was becoming popular – blood doping. Also known as blood packing or blood boosting, blood doping was the act of drawing an athlete’s blood prior to a competition, and then after a time, re-introducing that blood back into the athlete’s system via transfusion.

The pioneer research from Sweden, Dr Bjorn Ekblom, discovered that separating the red blood cells from a quart of blood, refrigerating it, and then re-injecting it a month later increased the efficiency of that athlete by 25%, according to Daniel Rosen, who wrote the book “Dope: A history of Performance Enhancement in Sports from the Nineteenth Century to Today.” This research was no secret. Ekblom published it in a paper called “Responses to Exercise After Blood Loss and Reinfusion.”

Dope Daniel Rosen

Blood doping was not illegal at the time. However, in the realm of competition, it was considered sneaky enough not to talk about. But people did whisper about it. And people whispered about Lasse Virén, the Finn who accomplished the only Olympic Double-Double, by winning the grueling 5,000m and 10,000m races in two successive Olympiads – Munich in 1972 and Montreal in 1976.

People whispered that Virén only performed well in the big tent events, but in the years between the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, Virén did not reach champion levels. As Rosen wrote, “given the seemingly few and admittedly poor results in between the Olympics, some have argued that there must have been a secret source from Virén obtained his speed. Virén, on the other hand, insists that he has never blood doped and never needed to. By focusing on the Olympics, to the exclusion of other events, he built up his fitness specifically for those few events every four years.”

Blood doping was officially declared an illegal practice in 1986. But autologous blood doping, the act of reinjecting your own red blood cells back into your system, is not reliably traceable. One test that currently exists requires an athlete to breathe in carbon monoxide, which understandably, athletes balk at.

General George S. Patton on the warfront.

I recently learned that one of the Olympians from the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden was General “Old Blood and Guts” George S. Patton – American military hero from World War II. As this wonderful Wired article relates, Patton put in a wonderful effort in the modern Olympics first modern pentathlon. The pentathlon is composed of shooting, swimming, fencing, horse riding and running – the concept being that the officer of that time might have to do all those kinds of things in order to get a message safely to its receiver in a time of war.

In 1912, Patton was a promising junior officer with a reputation for being dedicated, and a hard-driving leader. And despite Patton’s short time to prepare, he finished fifth in the pentathlon, behind four Swedes. Here are a few remarkable anecdotes related to one of the most well-known military leaders of the 20th century.

Patton had a bigger gun: Patton fired 20 bullets with a .38 caliber pistol, while his competitors were using .22 gauge pistols. When judges examined the paper target and saw only 17 holes, Patton claimed that all of his shots hit the target, but because of his higher gauge bullets, larger holes were found in the target. Patton claimed that the missing shots went through existing holes. The judges did not agree, and so he finished 20th, instead of first if he was to be believed.

Patton entering the stadium after his pentathlon run at the 1912 Stockholm Summer Games.

Patton was doped up: The final event of the pentathlon was the 4k race (about 2.5 miles), although it included a run through a thick forest and very muddy pathways. Patton, who had known for only two months that he was heading to Stockholm to represent the US in the pentathlon was not in the condition he would have preferred. But Patton was a ferocious competitor, training hard on the ship – SS Finland – from US to Europe, and then applying a level of energy and aggressiveness that could only be described as all out. In the 300-meter run, he simply swam to exhaustion, but took seventh. In the 4k run, the US trainer decided that Patton could use a little help with a bit of “hop”. That was the nickname for opium, a legal pick-me-up back in the day. Patton ran hard, ended up walking into the Stadium, crossing the finish line in third, and promptly passing out, for several hours.

Patton was an aggressive fencer, but not as aggressive as his wife: Patton approached fencing like he approached warfare – aggressively. In fact, Patton placed fourth in fencing, defeating the French fencer, Jean de Mas Latrie, who had lost only to Patton. As the Wired article quotes a Patton biographer, “Throughout his career, disdain for defense was a Patton trademark. To attack was to succeed, to defend was to invite defeat.” But in this passage from Michael Keane’s book, George S. Patton: Blood, Guts, and Prayer”, Patton was no match for his wife, who was preparing for the family’s move from France to the US, after Patton’s assignment to the École Militaire in Saumur, France.

George and Beatrice Patton
George and Beatrice Patton

As the family prepared to return to America, Beatrice was left to pack their belongings while George attended the fencing academy. The day before they departed, Patton casually remarked to his exhausted wife, “I hope you remembered to pack all those swords under the bed.” Walking into the bedroom, Beatrice discovered dozens of swords and scabbards of which she had been completely unaware. Frustrated that her husband had not appreciated her efforts or informed her of the swords he had been collecting, she angrily picked up one of the weapons and began chasing him around the house. A frantic Patton scurried over chairs and tables, pleading with his furious wife, “Don’t! Don’t! Please don’t!” Beatrice eventually brought the sword down on a table, missing her husband, but hard enough to embed the sword in the edge of the table. A newly compliant husband now offered to help his wife pack his collection.

Here is a clip from the movie, Patton, which has nothing to do with the Olympics, but is still fun to watch.

Yulia Stepanova and Vitaliy Stepanov in the ARD Documentary Geheimsache Doping Top Secret Doping
Yulia Stepanova and Vitaliy Stepanov in the ARD Documentary Geheimsache Doping Top Secret Doping

As incredible as it may sound, the entire Russian track and field team have been banned from international competition, and may be prevented from competing in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was announced on November 13 that Russia’s track and field federation was suspended in a 27-1 vote by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the global governing body of track and field. Not only has numerous cases of doping been uncovered, based on a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), doping appears to have been systemic, involving coaches, athletes and officials.

As the report explains, “The investigation indicates that the acceptance of cheating at all levels is widespread and of long standing. An athlete’s decision not to participate is likely to leave him or her without access to top caliber coaches and thus the opportunities to excel. This acceptance and, at times, expectation of cheating…indicate a fundamentally flawed mindset that is deeply ingrained in all levels of Russian athletics. The mindset is ‘justified’ on the theory that everyone else is cheating as well.”

WADA was prompted into action after the airing of a documentary by German broadcaster ARD called “Geheimsache Doping”, or “Top Secret Doping” in English.

Below are excerpts from the English transcript of the now-famous documentary. You can watch an English version of the documentary here.

When discus thrower, Evgenia Pwcherina is asked by a report how many athletes from the national team in Russia are doping, she replies, “Most of them. The greater part. 99%. And you get absolutely anything. Everything the athlete wants. And the shorter the period it can be detected, the more expensive the product.”

Said Oleg Popov, a Russian coach, “The athlete has no choice. Either you prepare yourself in national team with banned substances, in order to win medals which are also accredited to the Federation – the head coach, the Ministry of Sport, the Federation President, the entire Russian Athletics Federation. And, if you are unable to agree with this scheme, which they offer you, then things can move very quickly and you’re out.”

One of the first people to approach the producer of the documentary, Hajo Seppelt, was a

The logo for the World Anti-Doping Agency
The logo for the World Anti-Doping Agency

It appears that success is catching up with Kenya. Soon after topping the medals table at the World Athletics Championships in August, Kenya is under fire for an apparent and rampant doping of athletes, and now face a possible 4-year ban from competition, which would include the Rio Olympics in 2016.

As the New York Times reported, a Kenyan profession who headed an independent investigation into drug use by Kenyan athletes told the French magazine, “L’Equippe, “In this country, there is more EPO being consumed by athletes than by the ill.”

When Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia made his mark as a gold medalist from North Africa in Rome and Tokyo in the early 1960s, and fellow Africans began to find success in track, it was thought that the tradition of running long distances in high altitude environments was a natural competitive advantage.

But apparently, that advantage was not enough, and Kenyans in particularly have fallen into a culture of performance enhancing drugs. EPO, or erythropoietin, which is a hormone that controls the production of red blood cells, is now commonly used. Allegations of doping were strengthened when the blood tests of championship athletes, including 77 Kenyans, were leaked to the British paper, The Sunday Times, earlier this year.

Rita Jeptoo, of Kenya, breaks the tape to win the women's division of the 118th Boston Marathon Monday, April 21, 2014 in Boston. She Marathons, tested positive for a banned substance in September 2014 and was banned for two years in January.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Rita Jeptoo, of Kenya, breaks the tape to win the women’s division of the 118th Boston Marathon Monday, April 21, 2014 in Boston. She Marathons, tested positive for a banned substance in September 2014 and was banned for two years in January.
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Unfortunately, what has not become commonplace is a custom of testing and accountability. Just yesterday, Kenya Olympic Committee president, Kip Keino expressed the seriousness of the threat to Kenya. “It is no longer just a threat,” said the two-time Olympic champion. “They think Kenya is sweeping doping issues under the carpet.” According to this Reuters report, the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) has been tracking Kenya’s doping situation for many years, but now seem about to act.

Jason GatlinWhen Justin Gatlin lost to Usain Bolt in the 100-meter finals at the IAAF Track and Field Championships, the twitterverse was definitely rooting for Bolt to retain his championship. Gatlin’s history with doping turned this match into a morality play – Unblemished Bolt vs. Tainted Gatlin.

There were some who came to Gatlin’s defense – he tested positive for a banned substance in 2001, was subsequently banned for competition for two years, which was later reduced to one year. In other words, he served time for the crime, as it were.

What I learned recently is how aggressive drug testing is today. According to this article by Nick Zaccardi, who writes a blog on the Olympics for NBC, Gatlin has already been tested 62 times in 2015 – that’s once every four days!

On the surface, I agree with his agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, that “It’s ridiculous.” But then again, it’s a high-stakes world where considerable amounts of money is poured into finding the edge that brings the slimmest of improvements in competitive sports.

Gatlin’s not alone. In 2014 Gatlin was the second most tested track and field competitor, but Michael Phelps was tested even more.

Thus the cat and mouse game between chemists and regulators continues…. probably forever.

Tyson Gay, a member of the 4X100 US men’s relay team, had returned his silver medal from the 2012 London Summer Games a year ago. And yet, two years later, the cloud from his drug-enhanced achievement continued to hang over the rest of his teammates. Yesterday, the hammer came down from the International Olympic Committee and the entire US 4×100 relay team were stripped of their silver medals.

Tyson Gay_second from left_Hassan Ammar AP
Tyson Gay_second from left_Hassan Ammar AP

As this NY Times article reported, there is a silver lining, at least for Trinidad and Tobago men’s 4X100 team, which could eventually be recognized as second place winners, while France’s team could end up with bronze.

This wasn’t the first Olympic disqualification, nor will it be the last. As this link – Top 10 Athletes Who Lost Their Olympic Medal – shows, history abounds with the fallen and disgraced, including:

  • Ben Johnson: The Canadian sprinter set the world record in the 100 meter race in Seoul in 1988, but only 3 days later failed a drug test for the steroid, Stanozolol, and was forced to surrender his gold medal.
  • Andreea Raducan: The Romanian gymnast won two gold medals as well as silver in various individual and team events in the Sydney Games in 2000, but gave them up after testing positive for pseudoephedrine.
  • Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall: The Swedish pentathlete was found to have consumed alcohol – two beers to be exact – which was classified as a drug at the time in 1968. Though Sweden won a medal for the Men’s Pentathlete Team competition in Mexico City, they had to return their medals.
  • Marion Jones: The American sprinter was found to have taken steroids, resulting of being stripped of 6 Olympic medals won at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
  • Jim Thorpe: The star of the Stockholm Games in 1912, Thorpe was disqualified and relieved of his gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. His crime? He had played professional baseball, earning a pittance to play.