John Oliver in his program, Last Week Tonight, takes complex issues and explains them simply and, often times devastatingly, with humor. Recently, he took on the topic of doping.

It is powerful, and hysterical.

One early scene, Oliver shows an American anti-doping official observing an athlete urinate to show the world the humiliating extremes authorities feel they have to go to prevent cheating.

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An anti-doping official watching an athlete pee.

He quotes the former head of top world anti-doping regulator (WADA), Dick Pound, saying that no matter what processes you have in place to prevent doping and cheating, if there’s a will there’s a way.

“The machinery is all there. The question is, do people really want it to work. You can do hundreds of thousands of tests and catch nobody if you don’t want to catch anybody. Yeah. People don’t want it to work.”

Oliver goes on to show the dismay of athletes who feel they are competing fruitlessly against cheaters, and don’t know what to do about it. Alysia Montaño came in fifth in the 800 meter race at the 2012 Olympic Games, losing to three people from countries (Russia and Kenya) whose anti-doping authorities have been deemed inadequate. Montaño states that she felt she was “racing against robots”, and wondered at her predicament “What am I doing here? What’s the point?”

The 20-minute piece, every minute worth watching, builds to a glorious finish with a fantastically funny spoof of the inspirational profile of an Olympic athlete. Please watch this video.

John Oliver_cram all the pills
From John Oliver’s faux inspirational athlete profile.
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Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova speaks at a press conference in Los Angeles, on March 7, 2016.  / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

The world was shocked when world #11 and five-time grand slam singles champion, Maria Sharapova, was suspended from tennis competition for use of a banned substance, meldonium. The tennis world reacted with scorn for the former world #1 women’s tennis player:

  • John McEnroe: “It would be hard to believe that no one in her camp, the 25 or 30 people that work for her, or Maria herself, had (any) idea that (meldonium had been banned).”
  • Jennifer Capriati: “I didn’t have the high priced team of [doctors] that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up.”

Capriati is making the most powerful case against doping from an athlete’s perspective. Taking banned or illegal drugs to enhance performance is cheating. And to not call out cheats is unfair to those who are not taking drugs that give advantage.

Sponsors dropped Sharapova like an overripe fruit with maggots inside. All except Head, the racquet manufacturer.

According to this statement from HEAD, “We question WADA’s decision to add meldonium to its banned substances list in the manner it did; we believe the correct action by WADA would have been to impose a dosage limitation only. In the circumstances we would encourage WADA to release scientific studies which validates their claim that meldonium should be a banned substance.”

WADA is the World Anti-Doping Association, the international governing body that establishes what athletes may or may not put into their bodies. The president of WADA, Dick Pound responded to HEAD’s statement to the BBC:

“First and foremost, Head is a manufacturer and seller of tennis rackets, among other things. So far as I’m aware, it’s not a medical expert and not in a position to amend the world anti-doping code. As for its view as a commercial racket seller as to whether meldonium should be on the list of prohibited substances or not, quite frankly I prefer the scientific opinion of medical experts to the commercial interest of somebody telling tennis rackets using a player who is subject to whatever discipline is called for under the world anti-doping code. A complete conflict of interest on its part, combined with a lack of knowledge of the particular substance.”

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World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Canadian lawyer Dick Pound / AFP PHOTO/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

That is a powerful and damning retort from Pound, whose efforts helped lead to the suspension of Russia’s entire track and field team from international competition, including the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics.

And yet, this is what confuses me. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus among “medical experts” as to whether meldonium actually enhances performance in athletes.

This New York Times article explains the science of how meldonium works. In short, burning glucose in your body releases more energy than burning fat. The “science” states that meldonium will work to encourage the burning of glucose, not fat. So when you’re oxygen starved, a situation many high-performance athletes find themselves in when they exert themselves, the meldonium will give them a glucose burn and a bigger burst of oxygen.

Meldonium box
A box of meldonium pills, legally marketed as Mildronate primarily in Eastern Europe.

The same New York Times article, entitled “Effects of Meldonium on Athletes are Hazy“, quotes Dr Eric Brass of UCLA, who questions the correlation between meldonium and greater athletic performance.

“In general, if one is involved in short-duration, sprint-type activity, one tends to use glucose because it is more available and it is an efficient way to generate energy quickly,” said Dr. Eric Brass, a professor of medicine at U.C.L.A. Still, Brass said it was not clear if that was what was really happening in athletes. “The science behind many of these performance-enhancing compounds is limited, biased and subject to misinterpretation,” he said. Several of the studies on meldonium were done on rats and published only in Russian.

This is why doping stories outrage me and put me to sleep at the same time. I definitely

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How do you clean up corruption when it is perceived that all parties are steeped in it?

According to this powerful opinion piece by Juliet Macur of the New York Times, better to go with the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.

She writes how the head of WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency), Dick Pound, has consistently been blunt and hardline with regards to corruption in athletics, particularly as it relates to doping. (She cites in the article a hysterical quote from Pound about a famous cyclist’s testosterone levels as a case in point.) But for some reason, when it comes to the fate of IAAF leader, Sebastian Coe, Pound somehow found it in his heart to praise and support, not tear down. As Macur wrote, “What had WADA done with the real Dick Pound?”

Coe took gold in the 1500 meters in 1980 and 1984, was elected as an MP in the British Parliament, and has been a leader in the International Amateur Athletics Federation since 2007, recently becoming the head of the IAAF last August. To be honest, it’s a lousy time to be the head of the IAAF, which is under a dark cloud of suspicion.

SEbastian Coe wins gold in 1500 in Los Angeles
Sebastian Coe wins gold in the 1500 meter race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games

There are allegations of gifts made in exchange for awarding the 2019 world track and field championships to Doha, Qatar. There is the state-sponsored doping program in Russia that was conveniently ignored by the IAAF but eventually exposed by WADA, resulting in Russia’s track and field being banned from international competition, including the Rio Olympics in August. There is the suspected doping of Kenya’s runners, whose performance at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing last August was so superlative, they topped the medals tables for the first time ever.

And finally, there is Coe himself, who very reluctantly disassociated himself from his long-time paid association with Nike. The IAAF awarded the 2021 Athletics World Championships to Eugene, Oregon in the US, with apparently a formal bidding process. Oregon is definitely a hotbed for track, so Eugene’s selection is not a surprise. But Oregon is also the home to Nike. There’s no real indication that Nike, and thus Coe, had anything shady to do with the selection process. But taken all together, the IAAF is not currently a poster child for transparency and ethical decision making.

But as Macur explains, “It can be difficult to find purity at the top of international sports. In track and field, Coe, the former middle-distance star and Olympic champion, just might be the best option. He should serve his punishment for not speaking out against pervasive doping in track and field. His sentence: to clean up his dirty sport.”

Macur goes on to quote 5,000-meter runner and champion, Lauren Fleshmen as saying that Coe probably didn’t know all the corrupt things going on in the IAAF because of its