When you want to ruin a perfectly good trail mix, you toss in a handful of banana chips. When you want to ruin a perfectly good sports exhibition, you toss in a sample-sized cup of steroid-tainted urine.
Should we back up? Let’s back up. We’re talking about doping — a practice that continues to persist, even in a world that can no longer keep secrets. We’ve had the displeasure of seeing some of our most treasured athletes succumb — including Lance Armstrong, whose career more-or-less imploded after it was discovered that he had engaged in doping and had conspired to cover it up.
But one would hope that a high-stakes sports exhibition like the Summer Olympics — a time-honored celebration of international cooperation and friendly competition — would be a sacred place, safe from the inky shadow of foul play and the scent of tainted urine.
However, if one believed that, one would come away disappointed.
A World Leader in Dishonesty
Let’s start with Russia. Russia’s track and field team has been summarily banned from the upcoming Rio Olympics — the first such sanction in many decades. The last time a similar penalty was levied against an entire nation’s sports team, the year was 1960, and the nation was East Germany.
So what’s happening with Russia? It began with reports published by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which alleged that a far-reaching and state-sanctioned doping scheme had undermined the results of the 2008, 2012 and 2014 Games. But while the specter of doubt has hung over Putin’s Russia for many years, it was only in the last seven months or so that things took a darker and more decisive turn.
When the dust finally settled, we were left with a handful of shameful details:
• Russian athletes had been provided with a three-drug cocktail, complete with liquor chasers.
• The Russian Federal Security Force was found to have made a habit of threatening or blackmailing drug testers.
• Russia had apparently successfully enlisted the assistance of some of the less honest authorities to manipulate tests by swapping out tainted urine and destroying other urine samples entirely.
Like so much else that goes on in the upper echelons of Russian leadership, Russia’s efforts in these most recent Olympic Games is half bluster and half smoke and mirrors.
What Do We Do About It?
So where does it end? Actually, the better question is: What do we do about it?
Part of the solution involves expanding the resources available to whistleblowers and would-be whistleblowers. Take, for example, Yulia Stepanova, who “blew the whistle” on her fellow Russians and helped drag this sad tale — and all of its allegations of active state encouragement — into the unforgiving daylight. She comes from a nation whose leader is regularly suspected of having journalists and political rivals killed. Is it crazy to imagine Putin wouldn’t be, well, slightly upset with a person or persons who cost Russia a large measure of its treasured national pride?
Even in these supposedly enlightened United States of ours, whistleblowers of all kinds stand on shaky legal ground, when they should be hailed as patriots and shining examples of what it means to have integrity.
Another potential solution — this time from HBO’s John Oliver — would be to make the Worldwide Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) “truly independent” and grant it the authority it needs to seek out dishonorable practices and levy the appropriate penalties.
But maybe the most important solution — as well as the biggest challenge — is to improve the way we communicate about such controversies. Whenever yet another high-profile athlete is found to have engaged in doping, or some other dishonest practice, the amount of equivocating that goes on is truly staggering. “They meant no harm,” some say. Or, even worse: “Everybody else is doing it — let them have their edge.”
No, everybody is not doing it — just ask Yulia Stepanova. However, the sooner our respective nations become comfortable again with holding our paragons accountable, the sooner we can have an Olympic Games free from the poisonous, morale-sapping shadow of doubt.
Worthy of Trust
It’s important to remember this is nothing new. We’ve been body-hacking ourselves to get ready for sports since time immemorial. As John Oliver pointed out with his characteristic wit and humor in a recent feature about doping, some of the earliest examples involved grafting thin slices of chimpanzee testicles into otherwise healthy competing athletes.
We’ve come a long way since then, but clearly not enough. As Russia has handily proven lately, doping isn’t an isolated problem, and it’s not just about sports — it’s a trend that undermines on a fundamental level the sort of trust that’s vitally important for building coalitions, writing treaties and generally working toward making this troubled planet a better place to live.
If we can’t trust a country to play fair during a track and field meet, what can we trust them with? Those are the stakes we’re talking about.