Three Russians stood on the medal podium in the 50k freestyle cross-country skiing competition, on the last day of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In a spectacular finish to a grueling race, Russia’s Alexander Legkov and a few others broke the pack of about 30 skiiers for a final push.
And the push was up a steep incline before entering the stadium. Legkov pushed past the finish line after a tough 1 hour 46 minutes and 55.2 seconds, only 0.7 seconds ahead of compatriot, Maxim Vylegzhanin, and 0.8 seconds ahead of another Russian, Ilia Chernousov.
As Russian teammate, Sergey Gamuzov, gushingly exclaimed in this article, “Russia power, Alexander Legkov, the power of Russia! It was wonderful day!”
There is very little written about it, but for some reason, third-place winner, Ilia Chernousov, has not been implicated in the doping scandal, so for now, he retains his bronze medal. And while no decision has been made in distribution of medals, it’s very possible that the 4th and 5th place winners in the Sochi 50k cross country ski competition – Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus – could receive medals, with Chernousov becoming the gold-medalist.
“Foreign officials are trying to put pressure on our country,” said Alexander Legkov, who was stripped of his 50km gold and 4x10km relay silver earlier this month by the International Olympic Committee. “The athletes are pawns in this game, and easiest to punish.”
“I haven’t got the faintest idea of any state-sponsored doping system,” said Legkov, who insists that he competed fairly, and always worried about his clear samples being contaminated.
“It’s hard when people don’t believe you. You open up to people and tell them the truth, but they are closed to you,” added Maksim Vylegzhanin, who had three Sochi silvers taken away from him.
On December 5, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, taking a significantly bolder stance than they did at the 2016 Rio Olympics when they only delegated that decision to the international sports federations.
As the actual team was not banned, individual Russian athletes will still likely be able to apply for participation on their own if it can be shown they were not involved in the state-doping program for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. If they are allowed to join the PyoengChang Olympics, they will participate under the banner of OAR (Olympic Athlete from Russia), and if they win a gold medal, they will hear the Olympic Anthem, not the Russian anthem.
Several days later, the head of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) and billionaire Russian national, Alisher Usmanov, wrote a letter to the IOC with an appeal. While Usmanov makes no defense of those athletes who have used doping as a systematic part of their training and development, he claims that those Russian athletes who are “clean” should not be treated unfairly.
Even though discrimination in any shape or form contradicts the principles of the Olympic Movement, the IOC’s decision certainly does put clean Russian athletes on an uneven playing field with athletes from other countries. Having gone through the purgatory of the Olympic qualifications, clean Russian athletes will (a) have to wait for months for the final decisions by the special commission of the IOC, (b) be deprived of the customary support of the NOC of Russia, and (c) most importantly, be denied the right to see their national flag and hear their national anthem.
What is interesting, and perhaps ironic, is the appeal to fairness:
One of the principles of Roman law states: “Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine culpa”. (“No guilt – no punishment”.) The innocent shall not be punished and put down to knees. This approach violates the basic human rights and undermines the trust in law and justice. Athletes dedicate their rather short life in sport for this one moment when they can see their country’s flag in the sky and hear the sound of their national anthem. This is the pinnacle of their glory, their personal conquest of Everest.
This very principle of fairness is what got the Russian sports machine in trouble. The well-documented state-sponsored doping regime in Russia may have very well resulted in the cheater assuming the medal podium. When a doper wins a medal, clean athletes are deprived of the glory of claiming gold, and the potential of financial gains among other things. Clean athletes who finish fourth, fifth or sixth are deprived of receiving any medal and thus public recognition.
I understand Usmanov’s appeal. And he is actually right. However, a little more empathy about how other athletes feel about the Russia doping scandal could have helped.
The IOC sought to inject youth and improve gender diversity into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by adding events, while keeping the total number of invited athletes the same. In addition to the five new sports added in August, 2016 (baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the addition of 15 new events to existing sports.
And yet, to keep to a limit of 11,090 total athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, cuts had to be made. The IOC made decisions that resulted in the elimination of 285 quota slots for various sports. Much of this was driven by a need to improve gender ratios, particularly in sports like cycling, judo, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming and water polo.
But the biggest losers? Wrestling with 56 cuts, weightlifting with 64 and athletics with 105 cuts.
Perhaps messages are being sent.
Wrestling was actually dropped from the Olympic menu of core sports in February, 2013 because the rules were considered vague. Wrestling’s scoring system was too difficult to understand, which in turn made it difficult to engage the average television viewer. Somehow, through significant lobbying efforts, wrestling was reinstated as a non-core sport for the 2020 Games, but the latest decision to cull the wrestling numbers may be a reminder that wrestling has to work at its game.
Athletics, with its high profile events and global track stars, also suffers from a deep and dark history of doping. Most recently, the IAAF banned the entire Russian track and field team from the 2016 Rio Olympics. All of this may have made it easier for the IOC to prioritize cuts in athletics.
As for weightlifting, the dark clouds of doping have hung over this sport for decades. The IOC dropped an entire men’s weight class on its way to eliminating 64 quota slots for Tokyo 2020. Said Japan Weightlifting Association President Yoshiyuki Miyake in this Mainichi Daily News article, It’s a shame. I’m confused why they would make this kind of decision without any discussion.”
In the men’s 94-kilogram class at the 2012 London Games, Poland’s Tomasz Zielinski finished ninth. A disappointment, to be sure, but Zielinski was eventually awarded the bronze medal after six of the lifters ahead of him failed drug tests.
Wonderful story, right? Not so much. Zielinski, who obviously didn’t win a medal for his ability to learn from other’s mistakes, was kicked out of the 2016 Rio Games when one of his own tests came back positive.
IOC president has been explicit that he is sending messages, according to that same article:
Bach called weight lifting’s punishment in Friday’s reordering of the Games “a strong signal” to the sport. Good for him. Standing up to cheaters, and meting out real punishment, is common sense. If one sport’s athletes can’t follow the rules, other athletes from other sports should get a chance.
Show Jumper Cian O’Connor was stripped of his gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. O’Connor didn’t do the jumping himself. The Irishman is an equestrian, who rode a horse named Waterford Crystal. In competition horses also get tested for illegal drugs, and at the Athens Games, traces of various anti-psychotic and pain relieving drugs were found in Waterford Crystal.
Apparently, anti-pscyhotic drugs like fluphenazine are commonly used to calm horses, particularly in cases when horses have been injured and completed treatment, but won’t stay calm and allow their wounds to heal. Another drug like reserpine acts as a long-lasting sedative, which is likely prescribed for similar reasons as fluphenzine. They were likely in Waterford Crystal in order to calm this excitable horse and thus give the rider a more stable mount in competition.
Clearly the horse has no say in the matter. The team around the horse, including the rider and the trainer, are held accountable for what goes in the body of the horse. About a year after the Athens Olympics, O’Connor had to return his gold medal, and Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil became the new showjumping king, trading his silver for gold. Chris Kappler of America got to trade his bronze for silver, and suddenly, Marco Kutscher of Germany was awarded a bronze medal.
Four years later in Beijing, a horse named Camiro was found to have the illegal pain killer, capsaicin, in her system. Camiro was the horse of rider Tony Andre Hansen, who was one of four members of the Norwegian jumping team. Camiro apparently failed the first of two drug tests so Hansen was not allowed to compete in the individual jumping event, but was allowed to compete in the team event, at which Norway took the bronze medal.
The Norwegian team stood on the medal podium and sank in the cheers and congratulations. Ten days later, after the Beijing Games had completed, Camiro failed a second test. With Hansen’s horse now DQ’ed, the Norwegian team dropped from third to tenth in the point totals. The four members of Team Switzerland were suddenly bronze medalists.
As for Cian O’Connor, eight years later at the 2012 Olympics, he was able to ride a horse named Blue Loyd 12 to the medal podium, taking the bronze medal in the London Games.
Koji Murofushi of Japan is not only an Olympian, he’s an alchemist. In his career, he’s turned silver into gold and made bronze appear and disappear.
In 2004, Murofushi was dueling it out with fellow hammer thrower, Adrián Annus of Hungary. Murofushi, though, must have been a bit frustrated because for every mighty throw he made, Annus would throw one slightly further. And in the third of six throws in the finals of the hammer throw, Annus tossed the hammer 83.19 meters, which Murofushi simply could not match. His final throw of the event went 82.91 meters, well beyond every other competitor, except for Annus.
Thus, on August 22, 2004, the Hungarian took the gold in the hammer throw, and the Japanese the silver.
Only a few days after Murofushi stood listening to the Hungarian national anthem on the winner’s podium, he heard the news: Annus would be stripped of his gold medal. As it turned out, the urine samples Annus submitted to authorities before and after the hammer throw competition appeared to be from two different people, neither of them chemically linked to Annus. He was then asked to submit to a urine test after his return to Hungary, but Annus never showed up for the test. Annus was then ordered to return his gold medal so that it could be handed to Murofushi. It took a while, but several months later, under pressure of the IOC and the constant media attention, Annus relented and relinquished his Olympic title.
Murofushi’s silver turned to gold, and he is now the hammer throw champion of the 2004 Athens Olympics.
In 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, Slovenian hammer thrower, Primož Kozmus, won almost every one of the six rounds. He threw 82.02 meters four of those five times, which must have been a bit frustrating, but that mark was still good enough to best all other finalists. Murofushi could not repeat his gold-medal winning distance of 82.91 meters in Athens, his best throw of 80.71 landing him in fifth and thus medal-less.
“It’s a real honor to get a medal in two straight Olympics,” Murofushi was quoted as saying in this Japan Times article. “But it is sad that this has come about because of doping. These were buddies I competed together with so it is incredibly disappointing. This (doping problem) is something the sports world really needs to tackle. It has to be thought of as a very serious problem.”
In the meanwhile, the Belarusians did not take their ignominy sitting down. They appealed the ruling, taking their case to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, the international body that settles disputes related to the Olympics. And in June of 2010, the court upheld the appeal from the Belarusians. Apparently, the court uncovered irregularities in the way the urine samples were handled, thus making it difficult to determine with conviction that doping had taken place. As a result, their silver and bronze medals were restored to them, and Murofushi dropped back down to fifth. He was not to receive a medal for his results in Beijing.
Murofushi’s remarks to the press showed he was willing to be diplomatic, emphasizing the positive. As he said in this Kyodo article, “doping is gaining more and more attention and this will result in stricter tests. I think this will be a plus for me at the London Olympics.”
Maybe it was. Murofushi, at the age of 37, took bronze in the hammer throw at the 2012 London Olympics.
It’s a cat and mouse game, the chemists on the side of the cheaters, and the chemists on the side of the authorities. And like hackers in cyberspace, the well-financed black hats in the shadows will often times be one step ahead of the rule-makers and the enforcers.
But doping detection technology improves, and what was once untraceable is now visible. A considerable number of urine samples were taken on athletes, samples that were considered clean in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London. With the revelations of state-sponsored doping in Russia, sports officials decided it was time to re-test samples from previous Olympics to see whether any medal winners had gotten away with cheating. For certain Olympians, the results have been traumatic…others euphoric.
According to this New York Times article, 75 athletes have been declared cheaters as traces of the anabolic steroids Turinabol and Stanozolo. As the article explained, the “findings have resulted in a top-to-bottom rewriting of Olympic history.”
The article cited the case of American high jumper, Chaunté Lowe, who finished sixth in her competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Eight years later, when the urine samples were re-tested, two Russians and a Ukrainian who had finished ahead of Lowe in 3rd, 4th and 5th place were disqualified for doping. As a result, Lowe, who originally finished 6th, was suddenly a medalist.
As she was quoted as saying in the NYTImes article “I kept doing the math,” said Ms. Lowe, who originally finished sixth. “Wait: 6, 5, 4. … Oh my gosh — they’re right. I started crying.”
Nearly a decade later, out of her prime, Lowe should be receiving her bronze medal at the age of 32, way too late to take advantage of the “benefits” that come with a medal. For one, she may have been viewed as an athlete worth continued investment, and could have gone onto greater glory at the 2012 London Games at the age of 28. Or she could have managed her way into sponsorships in the strong afterglow upon her return from Beijing. At the very least, she could have been celebrated among her peers or in her hometown in a fleeting ego-affirming way or, who knows, in a life-changing way.
With the advancement of technology an assumption, taking samples during a given Games will continue to be key. Dr. Olivier Rabin of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was quoted in the article as saying, “Science progresses every day. Just over the past probably five years, the sensitivity of the equipment progressed by a factor of about 100. You see what was impossible to see before.”
2016 was the year when the entire Russian track and field team was banned from the Olympics. The evidence was so strong that the IAAF took the bold step of enacting the ban, affirming the report by the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA accused the Russian government of a state-sponsored program to use drugs in the development of their athletes and then to cover up the drug use through illicit techniques to avoid positive drug tests.
So one would think that the Rio 2016 organizing committee and the IOC would be well prepared to ensure that officials were doing their very best to ensure a level playing field for all “clean” athletes. And yet, one could say that the state of drug testing in the run up to Rio and during the Rio Olympics was chaos.
Of the 11,470 athletes, over 40% or 4,125 athletes had no record of any drug testing in 2016.
Of those 4,125 athletes, almost half of them were competing in so-called “higher-risk sports” (e.g.: track and field, swimming, weightlifting, cycling).
Again, those are pre-Rio Olympic numbers and a black mark on the IOC, sports governing bodies, as well as anti-doping agencies.
But during the Rio Olympics, the anti-doping processes were apparently a mess.
Again, there was little or no in-competition testing for athletes in “higher-risk sports”
Of the 11,300 athletes in Rio, only 4,800 were providing information of their whereabouts, a step required of athletes and necessary to allow drug testing officials, aka chaperones, to locate and request drug testing on demand
The above resulted in the failure to test about 50% of targeted athletes every day during the Olympics because athletes could not be located (Chaperones were forced to ask team officials where the athletes were, which likely allowed athletes to know in advance that a test was forthcoming)
Nearly 100 samples were mislabeled and therefore invalid
The team fell nearly 500 tests short of their minimal requirements
Two key questions here concern to what extent these problems were avoidable from the IOC perspective and to what extent this fundamentally affected the efficiency of the anti-doping operation at Rio 2016.
To some extent, there appears little the IOC and other sports officials could have changed the approach of the organisers. Brazil and chaotic preparation are just too closely entwined and, when the budget cuts and political disruption is considered, it is a miracle the Olympic and Paralympic Games happened at all.
Yet, on the other hand, the IOC had seven years to get this one right and were not exactly strapped for cash to provide more support.
When famed Czech gymnast, Vera Caslavska, passed away last month, there was a section in a Guardian article about Caslavska that shocked me. In 1968, the Soviet Union’s women’s gymnastics team defeated the Czech team to take gold at the Mexico City Olympics. The Soviet team was said to have apparently employed a most horrifying doping technique.
To counter Caslavska and her team-mates, the Soviets took extreme measures. “In any other country it would have been called rape,” one of the Soviet coaches said a quarter of a century later, after one of the gymnasts had told a German television interviewer what happened.
Doctors had discovered that pregnant women could gain an advantage in muscle power, suppleness and lung capacity, because they produced more red blood cells. So all the gymnasts, two of whom were 15 at the time, were forced to become pregnant before the Olympics: if they did not have a husband or boyfriend, they were made to have sex with a male coach. Anyone who refused was thrown off the team.
After 10 weeks of pregnancy every gymnast had an abortion. They won the team gold medal by a fraction of a point, with Czechoslovakia second.
This can’t be true, I thought. But it was reported in a major newspaper, I rationalized. But coaches could never get so many people to do this, I countered. But it’s been reported not only in the press, but also in documentaries, I learned.
The story first emerged in a major BBC documentary series in 1991 called “More Than a Game”. Then in 1994, a German RTL documentary featured, Olga Kovalenko, a member of that 1968 Soviet gymnastics team, who revealed the sordid details of pregnancy doping.
But as Elizabeth Booth explains in this detailed blog post in November, 2015, it appears this sensational story of rape, pregnancy, abortion and hormones is bogus. The biggest hole in the story was the German documentary’s claim that Soviet Olga Kovalenko was revealing all. Apparently, the woman in the documentary was not Olga Kovalenko. The real gymnast, the one who competed in Mexico City on the Soviet gold-medal winning team, took a Russian sports magazine to court in proving that she was not a victim of rape doping.
Once, German broadcaster RTL screened an interview … with my double! A certain woman who said that she was Olympic champion in gymnastics, Olga Kovalenko. (I actually took the surname of my second husband, but then divorced and again became Karaseva.). She gave a sensational interview, saying that the USSR coach forced the girls to get pregnant and then at the ninth or tenth week to have an abortion! Doctors know that at these times there is a sharp increase in the levels of male hormones in the woman’s body, which in girls increases physical strength and brings new resources of life, a feeling of elation. It is meant to be a kind of doping. “That’s how we won,” – these are the words of the imaginary “Kovalenko”.
Of course, this interview was published by many news agencies, newspapers and magazines. The Moscow correspondent of the Spanish newspaper “ABC” Juan Jimenez de Partha somehow tracked down my phone and asked about the meeting. Imagine his disappointment when I told him it’s easy to prove that it is a pure fake. At the time, when my “understudy” was broadcasting live on abortion, I was on a sea cruise. There is evidence in my passport!
Then “Paris Match” reporter Michel Peyrard, who had seen the “tremendous” interview on RTL, flew in to see me. He was pretty surprised that I could speak perfect French, but also frustrated because he found no resemblance to the “Olga from Germany”.
In the end, as Booth explained, the suspicion of doping in the former Soviet Union was high at the time the story came out, as it is today with Russia, and thus our resistance to believing a story like this, even one as fantastical as this, has been low.
At the time the papers – quality and tabloid press alike – had little good to say about the sport. A high profile rumour was also circulating that the female gymnasts were fed drugs to delay puberty, including one case where an ‘expert’ (we never found out exactly who) had observed photographs of a gymnast where her physical development had actually receded, rather than progressed. The words ‘I would believe anything’ summed up the attitude of many in the press at that time.
It’s as if people are wearing black hats or white hats. People boo when the black hats slunk onto the stage, and cheer when the white hats make their grand appearance.
In a world of gray – the state of doping in international sport competition – the Rio Olympics is turning into a morality play, where Russians in particular are playing the role of villain. Thanks to the IOC decision to allow individual sports federations to determine whether Russian athletes can participate in the Rio Olympics, some 270 Russians came to Rio, albeit under a moist, dark cloud of suspicion.
Those who are claiming the higher ground – the cleans – have been emboldened by the IOC decision to spit out their lines in contempt. Lilly King of America has made it no secret that her rival in the pool, Yulia Efimova of Russia, who was suspended for doping after winning medals at the London Games, should not be at the Rio Games. In reference to Efimova’s raising her index finger after winning a preliminary race in the 100-meter breaststroke, King said “You wave your finger No. 1, and you’ve been caught drug cheating? I’m not a fan.” King touched the wall a fraction of a second earlier than Efimova to win gold.
Australian swimmer, Mack Horton, said of his rival from China, Sun Yang, “I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats.” That prompted a social media war as Chinese fans dropped virtual vitriol on Horton, who pipped Sun to take gold in the 400-meter freestyle. “We probably just need to apologize to every Horton who has a name like Mack – because they have really copped a fair shellacking over the last couple of days,” said Mack Horton’s father, Andrew.
It’s clearly not just swimming, and it’s not just Russia and China against the rest of the world. King said that Justin Gatlin, gold medalist in the 100 meters should not be in Rio. Gatlin, who won gold at the 2004 Athens Games, was not only caught doping and suspended before the Athens Games, but also afterwards. While the 34-year-old American has a chance to claim gold again, Gatlin is definitely viewed as tainted.
Athletes are loudly expressing dislike, even disgust for “cheaters”. The crowd rain boos on the black hats. And to be realistic, the average sports fan is fatigued by the constant reminder that athletes are cheating. On Saturday, August 13, the morality play will likely reach its climax. On to the biggest stage will step Usain Bolt, arguably the most popular athlete in Rio. Bolt is universally loved for his friendliness, his love for fun and his sublime speed. Bolt is hoping to become the first ever to be crowned the fastest man in the world three Olympics in a row.
But perhaps a somewhat less obvious reason people root for Bolt is the belief that he runs clean and wins. Bolt is a symbol for the high performance and armchair athlete alike – a dragon slayer, a shining savior.
Adding to his favored status, Bolt addresses that responsibility with humility. Here’s how he responded to a question at the London Diamond Games in July, 2015 about his role as “savior”:
A lot of people have been saying that. But it’s not only me but all the athletes also. All the athletes have the right to try to help the sport, to keep the sport in a good light. I think it’s all of our responsibility. I just do my best. I try to run fast. I do it clean. I think that’s just what I have to do. I’m not going to say I’m the only savior of athletics. I just try to do my best and stay focused.
It’s complicated. Russian and Chinese athletes come from cultures where government are able to execute on top-down strategies and tactics more easily than more democratic societies. How much choice do the Suns and the Efimovas in their respective nations have in their athletic careers? As Romanian legend, Nadia Comaneci said in this New York Times video, “I don’t think the booing is really nice. Everybody is a human being in the end. I think you should respect them.”
I have once when I made mistakes and I have been banned for 16 months. Like, I don’t know actually I need to explain everybody or not. I just like have some question. Like if WADA say, like, tomorrow, stop, like, yogurt or nicotine or, I don’t know protein, that every athlete use, and they say tomorrow now it’s on banned list. And you stop. But this is stay out of your body six months and doping control is coming, like, after two months, tested you and you’re positive. This is your fault?
Michael Johnson also defended those who served the time. As the 4-time gold medalist sprinter said in this AP article, “the athlete has been a villain and certainly has done damage to the sport. . . . I don’t appreciate that. But the athlete’s not the one that’s making the rules that allows him to get back on the track or back in the pool, or back on the field.”
But to most people, it is simple. If you’ve been caught cheating and suspended, you got to Rio by tilting the playing field in your favor.