drug-testing

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.

According to this BBC article:

  • 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

Nick Butler of Inside the Games had this interesting perspective:

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.

Will Tokyo2020 get it right?

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For those of us in Japan, now thinking of how we are going to get ready for Tokyo 2020, the handover ceremony from Rio to Tokyo still resonates.

For eight minutes at the end of the Rio Olympics, Japan was given the spotlight. And the light shone brightly on Japan’s technology, fashion, arts, children and of course, Tokyo. They even made the solemn national anthem somewhat modern and uplifting with the stunning focus on the hi-no-maru, the red circle on white that symbolically represents the country.

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Tokyo2020 recently shared a video of this ceremony’s production, which is fascinating. These are the kinds of intense, complex projects that I would absolutely love to be a part of.

Global marketing and advertising powerhouse, Dentsu, was hired to create the closing handover ceremonies for Tokyo2020 for both the Rio Olympics and Rio Paralympics. Dentsu was paid JPY1.2 billion (USD12 million) to produce these segments, and of the big decisions they made was to include globally reknown cartoon characters: Doraemon and Super Mario.

Clearly, the transformation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe into Super Mario and back again was the highlight of the handover ceremony. And interestingly, Nintendo is reported to have paid nothing to have one of its characters be front and center.

Four more years to go. So much to do, so little time.

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Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike in Rio, accepting the Olympic Flag in the closing ceremonies of the Rio Olympics.

The Rio Olympics were coming to an end, but there was still one thing left to do – hand the Olympic flag over to Japan. And there she stood on stage, to the left of IOC President, Thomas Bach, waving the flag, and accepting the heavy responsibility of the 2020 Olympic Games.

Japan is very much a man’s world, particularly in Japanese politics and government. So it was a powerful image to see Yuriko Koike, elegant in a cream and gold-colored kimono, representing Japan on the biggest sports stage in the world. While the world awaits to see whether America will elect its first female president, Tokyo has already gone ahead and elected its first female governor.

A former journalist who speaks Arabic, Koike was elected to an Upper House seat in 1992 for the Japan New Party, which no longer exists. After serving 8 terms, she was tapped to be the Environment Minister from 2003 to 2006 under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In other words, Koike is an experienced politician.

And yet, when the former Tokyo governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, reluctantly resigned due to his personal use of public funds, Koike’s own party did not race to support her. Suspecting that support might not come her way, Koike declared her candidacy for the governorship, much to the anger of the LDP. Her party’s lack of support was not an issue as Koike won the election in a landslide on July 31, 2016.

She ran on a platform that included a call to revisit the Tokyo 2020 budget. But her opening salvo was directed at the planned move of the famous fish market in Tokyo from Tsukiji to Toyosu, 2 kilometers south of the current site. Toyosu would apparently have more room for expansion, as well as more modern facilities. The new site was previously the home of a large gas processing plant, the grounds of which had become heavily contaminated.

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The Tuskiji fish market in Tokyo

Thus the condition for approving the move to Toyosu was to ensure no traces of contamination. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government was charged with removing 2 meters of soil, decontaminating it, and then placing another 2.5 meters of new soil to ensure that the food, 1 million tons of fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, could be stored, prepared and sold in total confidence of safety. This work was completed in 2014 at a cost of about JPY86 billion (USD800 million).

When the new governor asked for confirmation whether these safety measures were carried out or not, she learned that the space underneath the five main structures on the site, over 30% of the entire site, did not have the required 4.5 meters of decontaminated and fresh soil underneath them. Instead of soil, hollow spaces were created underneath the buildings.

Here’s how this editorial from The Japan Times interpreted the situation: “Whatever the explanations may be, the metropolitan government lied to the public in that its website stated that the whole site was covered with clean soil to block the effects of toxic materials.

This is an example of Koike’s reporter’s instincts to challenge authority and uncover unjust practices. Already she has challenged previous administrations in the Tsukiji Market relocation. What else will be uncovered? Will anyone be held accountable? What will happen to Tsukiji Market?

Who knows. But right now, the right questions are being asked. What are the implications for the 2020 Olympics? Perhaps, a bit of the same…..

Michael Phelps
The incredible Michael Phelps

Gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, representing Uzbekistan, competed in her seventh Olympics in Rio at the age of 41.

American cyclist, Kristin Armstrong, won a gold medal in the individual road time trial in Rio, the third consecutive Olympics she has done so, at the age of 42.

Equestrian Phillip Dutton won a bronze medal in individual eventing for America at the age of 52.

Relative to Chusovitina, Armstrong and Dutton, swimmer Michael Phelps is a spring chicken. But at the age of 31, Phelps’ phenomenal Olympic career, particularly based on his results in Rio, is most definitely an outlier vis-a-vis his rivals and rival-wannabes. According to The Washington Post, “over the past 10 Summer Games, the oldest athlete to swim in the finals for the same events in which Phelps is scheduled to compete has been 29 years old, with the average age just under 22 years old. And, not surprisingly, times get slower as an athlete ages.” (Yes, Anthony Ervin winning gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the age of 35 is an even greater outlier.)

Michael Phelp's Aging Curve Compared_Washington Post

Role models are so important to aspiring athletes. And it’s not just adolescents and teenagers whose passions are ignited by their heroes. It’s Gen X. It’s even the Baby Boomers. They see Chusovitina and Phelps as trailblazers for those of us in our 30s, 40s and 50s, whose daily lives are filled with marketing meetings, children’s soccer matches, evening social gatherings, and attempts to overcome sleep deprivation on the weekends.

More and more commonly, men and women past their “prime” are making the time and taking the challenge to up their game in high performance athletics. The “Olympics” for athletes of age groups from 35 to over the century mark is the World Masters Games. The number of participants since 1985 has grown from over 8,000 to close to 30,000 in 2009, which was more than twice the number of athletes who took part in the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Oksana Chusovitina in Rio

As the nations of the industrialized world see their populace age rapidly, the people with the most money and influence are the aged demographics. Clearly, their interest in staying healthy and happy grows as they collectively age. As the human body’s production of hormones that enhance the benefits of physical exertion diminish from the age or 35, we can feel very clearly our strength diminishing over time. But considerable research and thought is going into how to increase flexibility, strength and staying power the older you get.

And the research tells us that exercise, low intensity or high, done on a consistent basis, will yield positive results for practically everybody. But the fact of the matter is, our busy lives demotivate so many of us from making that daily effort. This personal coach explains that making the effort is just a matter of making a decision.

The hard part about this for maturing athletes is that job and family responsibilities may make getting to bed early difficult. You need to make a choice as to the type of life you want to lead. If you’ve made the decision that you want to live a healthy, fit life, then going to bed early is part of it. That will likely mean the end of midweek social events, skipping TV after dinner, and strict adherence to stopping work after 8:00pm.

But to get to competitive levels of athletic performance, no matter your age, you need to dream. Photojournalist, Susana Girón, has followed these silver athletes taking their pictures, and concluded that age is not an issue if you have that burning passion for excellence

Sport in the elderly is not simply an issue of health. It is said that once you become older, you stop dreaming and become less passionate about things. The bodies of these athletes might dwindle with each year, but the passion with which they live and face the events remains stronger than ever, especially as they become aware that every championship might be their last. Living with passion means to remain forever young.

Phillip Dutton in Rio
Phillip Dutton

Thiago Braz da Silva and his winning vault
Thiago Braz da Silva and his winning pole vault

Renaud Lavillenie was above them all, figuratively and literally. The man from Barbezieux-Saint-Hilaire, reigning Olympic champion, didn’t deign to pole vault the first two heights of 5.50 and 5.65 meters. He was after all the world record holder at 6.16 meters. The men’s 800-meter finals were on, and he wasn’t doing anything anyway…so he watched David Rudisha win gold while he waited on his competition to get through their pedestrian heights.

When his rivals reached 5.75 meters, Lavillenie decided to join the competition. With the crowd clapping and cheering, the Frenchman rose above the bar with ease. As he did at 5.85.

The bar was raised to 5.93, which the announcer said was about the same as “vaulting over the average house”. In other words, the bar was getting pretty high.

Renaud Lavillenie making a vault
Renaud Lavillenie making a vault

Lavillenie is up first and he makes it with a roar. The Frenchman is yet to miss. But 5.93 proves to be a few centimeters too high for Jan Kudlička of the Czech Republic, Piotr Lisek of Poland and Sam Kendricks of the US, the eventual bronze medalist. Hometown favorite, but relatively unknown Thiago Braz da Silva of Brazil, also misses his first attempt at 5.93. But the 22-year old from the town of Marília, Brazil, running to the cheers of the crowd, makes it over the bar.

And now there are two. The Champion versus the Kid.

Lavillenie readies himself to win his second consecutive Olympic championship in the pole vault. He is up first, waits for the bar to be raised to 5.98, and clears it easily. By making 5.98 meters, Lavillenie has set a new Olympic record.

The young Brazilian, on the other hand, has never won a medal at an international event of any significance. He’s young, is improving very quickly, and clearly ballsy. Instead of trying to match Lavillenie at 5.98, da Silva says he wants the bar raised to 6.03. da Silva’s never cleared 6 meters, and yet he’s going for it.

Lavillenie calmly sips from a water bottle, sharing laughs with others. Da Silva fidgets with his poles, deciding which one he should use to propel him to new heights. With the new height, it’s back up to Lavillenie. He makes it over on his first attempt, but grazes the bar with his right hip on the way down – it’s the Frenchman’s first miss.

The pressure is intense. da Silva runs to the pit, extends the pole, but just as he raises off the ground, he gives up and falls harmlessly to the ground. It’s back to Lavillenie, a man who’s cleared this height many times in his career, encouraging the crowd to clap. And again, Lavillenie clears the bar only to knock it off as his stomach hits the bar. That’s two misses.

da Silva settles into the runway, victory potentially within his grasp with a miracle leap. He runs, he stabs, and he climbs into the air. He makes it! “What a jump,” shouts the announcer. “What a leap into the record books. What an all mighty chance he has now of taking the gold. Six oh three. The 20th man to go over 6 meters!”

Thiago Braz da Silva new Olympic record

Lavillenie sits in preparation, his face clearly showing concern. He’s likely thinking, “Where did this guy come from?” Looking for answers in the ground. he walks around to screw up his concentration for one final, enormous leap. Lavillenie decides to raise the bar, setting it at 6 meters 8 centimeters. If he makes it, da Silva has to make a very high leap. But the stakes are high for Lavillenie – miss it and the gold falls from his grasp.

The champion zips up his suit as he readies his pole for flight. He runs, he plants his pole, and he launches into the air. But this time, on the rise, Lavillenie’s feet hit the bar, which falls to earth. A new champion has been crowned – Thiago Braz da Silva is an Olympic champion, and Brazil’s newest hero.

No Brazilian has ever qualified in the Olympic pole vault. But in these Rio Olympics, da Silva not only competed, he set the Olympic record and ripped gold from the champion’s hands, vaulting into the hearts of Brazilians all.

Lavillenie loses

Imre Park on the medals podium
Gold medalist South Korea’s Park Sangyoung (C), silver medalist Hungary’s Geza Imre (L) and bronze medalist France’s Gautheir Grumier attend the awarding ceremony of men’s epee individual of fencing at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 9, 2016. / CHINA OUT

He was so close! Up by 4 at match point in an épée finals, victory was imminent.

The Hungarian, Géza Imre, was competing in his fifth Olympic Games, since his debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where he won bronze in the men’s individual épée. He tasted near glory by taking silver with his compatriots in the men’s epee team event.

And yet, there he was, the defending world champion, at the age of 41, seconds away from grasping gold at match point, up 14-10 on the Park Sang-young, the 20-year-old South Korean, ranked 21st in the world.

The drama was compelling even for me, a person who can’t tell the difference between an epee, a foil and a sabre. But my journalist’s eye saw that this was a compelling contest of righty vs lefty, East vs West, promising youth vs grizzled veteran.

Except for South Koreans, most spectators likely felt Imre was a split second from winning his elusive gold medal. Down 14-10, Park took it one step at a time. Countering a lunge, Park strikes, and makes it 14-11. “There’s one back,” said the announcer. Park goes low, and sneaks his epee in to hit Irme’s left hip. 14-12. “Park’s closed the gap.”

The crowd is beginning to think that Park has the slightest of chances. Imre lunges, aiming midriff, but is blocked by Park, who counters to get to 14-13. “There’s another one for Park!” shouts the announcer. “This is an amazing final now!”

Rio Olympics Fencing Men
Park Sangyoung of South Korea celebrates with his national flag after defeating Geze Imra of Hungary to win gold in a men’s individual epee final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Balancing caution and aggression, Park hops his way to Imre and then suddenly withdraws getting into a deep crouch, nearly losing his balance and falling backwards. The announcers are saying of Imre, “all he needs is a double. A double will do it,” at the very point Park strikes. Suddenly, it’s 14-14, and in épée, you don’t need to win by two. Gold goes to the winner of the next point.

“Géza Imre at the age of 41,” shouts the announcer, “was miles ahead, and then decided ‘I want to finish in a flourish. I want to finish with an attack.’ And Park has earned the right to be contested – a one-hit gold medal final!”

When play resumed, Park attacked. With his lunge, he stabbed the left side of Imre’s helmet convincingly, his helmet flashing green, his blade bending beautifully and fleetingly in a 180 degree arc.

“It’s Park! The 20 year old from Korea has done it. He’s won Korea’s first ever épée.”

Youth exploded. He flipped his helmet. He roared. He swung his épée in wild glee. He raced to his coach and slammed into him in an exuberant hug. “Unbelievable”, the announcer said, stressing each syllable. “That young man is a massive, massive talent!”

Perhaps it was Park’s youth that kept him in the hunt for gold. A promising fencer, a knee injury kept Park out of competition for much of 2015, which is why his ranking was so low when he got to Rio. But Park was not dwelling on the past. As he said in this article, he was in the moment.

“I was not even thinking about trying to win a gold medal. Since this is the festival for everyone, I wanted to enjoy myself. When will I ever compete at an Olympics again? I did not want to have any regrets, and I think it showed.”

Imre outpointed by Park in epee finals
Park scores the decisive 15th point.

Monica Puig wins

It is the finals of the women’s singles final at the Rio Olympics. Monica Puig of Puerto Rico is ranked 34th in the world, has not won a tournament of consequence in her young career, and is facing off against world #2, Angelique Kerber of Germany, the reigning Australian Open Champion.

Somehow, Puig wins the first set, 6 games to 4. I begin to notice the chants in the background – U-S-A! U-S-A!

Yes, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and Puig makes her home in Florida. But she has made it clear, she is competing for Puerto Rico. And besides, I thought, if Puerto Rico is a “territory” of the  U-S-A, then the  U-S-A isn’t really doing a remarkable job of managing it, at least nothing to cheer about.

Puerto Rico is in the deepest part of a 10-year economic slide. Its government is bankrupt, and unemployment is at 12%. Finding work, as well as hope, has become so hard in Puerto Rico that nearly a tenth of its population has moved to the United States. Here is how the New York Times recently described Puerto Rico:

It’s official: America now has a failed state within its borders, just the way Europe has Greece. America’s biggest unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico, effectively ran out of cash this summer and has stopped paying its debts. Now, Congress is putting together an oversight board to call the shots until the island gets back on its feet.

Monica Puig with Flag the Night Before the Finals

Imagine you’re Monica Puig from Puerto Rico. Quite possibly most of the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans in the country are watching the finals on television, gasping with each shot, moaning with every miss, and cheering every point won. Puig had the hopes and fears of an entire country riding on her shoulders.

After dropping the first set, Kerber came out in the second determined to show her metal,  taking the set 6 games to 4. Of course, everyone outside of Puerto Rico was thinking it was time for Puig to revert to her role as inexperienced upstart and lay down.

But lay down she did not. Puig raced out to a 5-0 lead in the third set, breaking Kerber twice, chasing the German champion side to side, playing sharp angles and failing to miss. However, as the announcers intoned, those last few championship points are the hardest, particularly for someone as inexperienced in the big matches as Puig.

Kerber serving in game 7 of the third set, fought for her life, earning six break chances. And each time Puig got it back to deuce. Puig also pushed it to the brink by getting to match point three times, before Kerber got it back to 40-40.

For Puig, the fourth match point was the charm. When Kerber sent a shot wide of the baseline, the 22-year-old from San Juan dropped her racket, her face etched in shock. Mouthing the words “Oh my God,” she stumbled to the net to shake Kerber’s hand, then the judge’s hand before dropping to her knees, overcome.

You could almost hear the roar out of San Juan, a guttural cry of both relief and release. A daughter of Puerto Rico not only put her country on the mental map of millions of armchair sports fans, she reminded her compatriots that like her, Puerto Rico will not go down without a fight.

“This is for them. They’re going through some tough times. They needed this. And I needed this. I think I united a nation. I just love where I come from.”

Monica Puig Puerto Rico's Heroine