The sound of booing at an Olympic event used to be rare—almost unheard of.
But this year, Russian athletes became the instant villains of the games when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) cleared the way for most of the team to compete, despite the world anti-doping body’s recommendation that they be banned in the wake of a major state-sponsored doping scandal.
Poolside, the men’s 4×100 relay team was jeered loudly as it readied for the final. Swimmer Yulia Efimova was booed as she lined up against America’s Lilly King for the breaststroke showdown. Efimova had been cleared to swim after coming off a 16-month ban for steroid use (which was overturned) and then testing positive for the banned drug meldonium earlier this year.
A Longstanding Problem
The insatiable desire to be faster, higher, and stronger has for centuries spurred athletes and coaches to find ways to gain a competitive edge—whatever it takes.
Similarly, the sporting world has long grappled with defining the line between what’s acceptable and what’s cheating, even since the beginning of competitive sports.
The ancient Greek Olympians openly used opium and herbal concoctions to try to best their opponents for big prize money and olive wreaths.
That was allowed, but acts such as bribing an opponent broke the rules and the penalties were harsh—the athlete would be banned for life from the games, and his name, the names of his family members, and the crime he committed would be inscribed on the pedestal of a life-size statue of Zeus, according to research by Charles E. Yesalis and Michael S. Bahrke, co-authors of “Performing-Enhancing Substances in Sport and Exercise.”
By 1896, when the modern Olympics were born, cocaine and heroin were widely used, all the way up to the 1920s when they became prescription-only drugs.
Nowadays, it’s gene doping, designer drugs, and state-sponsored doping programs.
Yet the bodies established to create and enforce anti-doping rules have made them layered and complicated—and sometimes it’s the organizations themselves conducting the cheating.
Penalties of short bans, lost medals, and canceled corporate sponsorship deals are still too light to truly clamp down on doping, say some critics.
So even if fans and clean athletes prefer an Olympics where integrity and fair play prevail, in reality the problem may be too big to fix.
The pressure on today’s elite athletes is exceptional: It’s a potent mix of pressure from coaches and medical staff, fans, corporate sponsors, and even governments.
Coaches, doctors, and performance directors are also under stress—their positions often hinge on delivering a medal winner.
Winning at the Olympics means so much that there will always be some who cheat, said Michele Verroken, a top anti-doping expert in the U.K.
“[This is] partly because they believe the drugs work (and in most cases they can do)—but also there’s a belief that they can get away with it,” she said.
And most of them do.
Verroken said the probability that athletes will be caught for doping is about 2 percent. The low number is due to multiple factors, including the inability of tests to detect some drugs, testing frequency, and various methods of covering up drug use.
Testing becomes a cat and mouse game, where new drugs escape detection until new tests are developed, which then spawn masking agents or even newer drugs.
“I do have faith that there are some clean athletes out there,” Verroken said. “It’s just that they’re under such pressure. What frightens me most is that there are too many tripwires that they might fall afoul of without realizing it.”
Birth of Anti-Doping
In 1928, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) became the first international sporting body to prohibit doping. But no systematic testing or regulations were developed.
It wasn’t until 1967, after British cyclist Tom Simpson died during the Tour de France, that the IOC introduced anti-doping regulations and set up the Medical Commission to fight doping.
Simpson had taken excess amounts of strychnine and brandy, and continued to ride until his body gave up.
Allegedly, he lived by the motto, “If it takes 10 to kill you, take 9 and win,” according to ProCon.org, an educational website.
At the 1968 Mexico City Games, Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was the first athlete to be stripped of an Olympic medal after testing positive for excessive alcohol. Liljenwall said he drank a couple of beers to calm down before the shooting section. Ironically, 14 other athletes tested positive for tranquilizers—which weren’t banned, so no penalties were meted out.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was created in 1999 and took over testing athletes from the IOC in 2004. The agency declares a drug or method illegal if it is a health risk, enhances performance, or violates the “spirit of sport.”
Each year, it produces an updated list containing hundreds of prohibited substances. More than 600 sporting organizations have signed up to WADA’s code of conduct, committing to its anti-doping rules.
Some substances are banned only during competition and others are banned year-round. Specific sports ban particular substances; for instance, beta-blockers, which can help relax an athlete, are only banned from sports such as shooting, archery, and golf.
Caffeine was on the list until it was removed in 2003—too late for Mongolian judo athlete Bakaava Buidaa, who was stripped of his 1972 Olympic silver medal for testing positive for the ubiquitous stimulant.
Romanian all-around gymnast Andreea Raducan was stripped of her gold at the 2000 Sydney Games after she took an over-the-counter cold remedy supplied by the team doctor. It contained pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that also acts as a stimulant. She was 16.
Pseudoephedrine was removed from the prohibited list in 2003, but an appeal to the IOC by Raducan last year failed to convince IOC chief Thomas Bach to reinstate her medal.
Ricky Berens, who won back-to-back swimming golds in Beijing and London, sympathized with Raducan, but said at the end of the day, the buck stops with the athlete.
“You’ve got to know what you’re putting in your body,” he said. “When I was sick, I would go and stand in a CVS aisle and plug in all the product names and see if I am able to take it or not.”
Competing in the Anti-Doping Age
Violations to WADA’s anti-doping rules include testing positive for a prohibited substance; refusing to submit a sample or evading a test; tampering with any part of the doping control system; possessing or trafficking prohibited substances or methods; and administering, assisting, or covering up the use of a substance or method.
It also includes violating “whereabouts” rules.
Every quarter, every athlete must submit their whereabouts information for the next four months—and they must identify one hour every day when they are available for a doping test. A tester can turn up any day during that hour and demand a test. Any changes to the athlete’s schedule must be amended online.
“It’s a pain,” Berens said. “It’s never fun at 6 a.m. when you have the morning off and here comes the drug tester person knocking on the door, waking you up.
“But those are the ones out there who are protecting our sport and protecting what is so important to the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement.”
Berens says swimmers usually pick the one hour during practice time, because it’s the same every day. “But sometimes, life is moving fast and you forget about it, and somebody shows up at the pool and you’re not there and you’re like—Oh!”
Three missed tests in a year count as a positive doping result.
Berens said he can’t remember how many times he was tested during the Olympics—random testing was also conducted at the Olympic Village between events.
“Sometimes it’s back-to-back. We were getting it from all angles,” Berens said.
Olympic wrestler Jesse Thielke tweeted on Aug. 2: “It’s comical when you know the local [official] tester so well that you are asking how the kids are doing while peeing in a cup in front of them.”
Cheating Runs Deep
Doping has become so much a part of the Olympic landscape, it’s expected that at least some athletes will fail tests and be sent home.
This year’s kerfuffle over the Russian team wasn’t resolved until the eve of the games. A total of 118 athletes, or about a third of the Russian team, was banned from competing—the latest chapter in a huge state-sponsored doping scheme that was revealed by a whistleblower.
The director of Russia’s anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, admitted to giving a cocktail of drugs to dozens of Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, reported The New York Times on May 12. Urine samples from the athletes were then furtively swapped for clean samples by anti-doping employees and state agents.
Last month, WADA called for a total ban of the Russian team, but the IOC was reluctant, leaving it up to individual sports federations to make a decision on blanket bans, which would then need to be upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Only the IAAF and the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) decided to ban all Russian athletes.
IOC’s Bach said on Aug. 1 that banning the entire Russian team from Rio would have been a “nuclear option.”
Verroken was disappointed by Bach’s decision: “I really do think that we do need a nuclear option.”
“That’s where you look at banning the whole country—the lengths [Russia] went to to make sure no samples were found was messed up,” he said. “At some point someone needs to be made an example of.”
Riddled With Gaps
Doping insider Victor Conte founded the nutritional supplement company BALCO that created designer steroid The Clear, known for being used by sprinters Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers and baseball star Barry Bonds.
Conte’s company provided steroids to elite athletes for years, yet no one tested positive because the drugs were designed to beat detection. In 2003, BALCO was investigated after an anonymous phone call from a sprint coach. Conte went to jail for four months.
Now Conte is outspoken about the gaps in the anti-doping system and the dire need for change. In an interview with NBC in March, he called the Olympic Games a fraud.
“It’s promoted as fair competition among the nations of the world,” he said. “What’s fair about these rules when it enables, harbors, and promotes the use of drugs?
“I don’t want to say everybody’s doing it [doping], because I don’t believe that, but I think it’s the overwhelming majority,” he told NBC.
Richard Pound, former president of WADA and former vice president of the IOC, said sports federations need to do more.
“Dopers know they are unlikely to get caught and that if they do, their suspension will be short,” Pound wrote on the IWF website in 2012. “When compared to the four- to five-year benefits that an athlete can garner from a steroids program, this is almost an invitation to dope.”
Weightlifting had become so rife with doping that the international body introduced tougher penalties on violators.
Last year, the IWF banned Bulgarian weightlifters from the 2016 Olympics due to multiple infractions, while Romania and Uzbekistan each had one spot taken away.
Too Big to Fix?
Given the complexities of testing and the challenge of addressing state-sponsored cheating, most critics tend to advocate for one extreme or the other: clamping down or opening up.
“We just should not be complacent or naive about the potential for drug misuse,” Verroken said. “But at the same time, balance that with the possibility that actually, whatever we do may not be enough—because somebody, somewhere will be able to get around it.”
A life ban from the Olympics for “serious doping offences” would be in line with the Olympic values of integrity and fair play, she said.
“Until we’re prepared to look at far more serious penalties, there will always be the doping returners who will cloud the field and add additional pressure.”
Two of the top four men’s 100-meter sprinters this year have previously been banned for doping—American Justin Gatlin (banned for four years) and Jamaica’s Yohan Blake (three months).
Collective penalties like those the weightlifting federation has introduced should be widely adopted, Verroken said, because then they “start to have an impact.”
Julian Savulescu, director of the Institute for Science and Ethics at Oxford, goes the other way. He advocates a more radical approach that includes legalizing some performance enhancement drugs.
“The zero tolerance on doping has failed,” he said in a 2013 article in the British Medical Journal.
Savulescu wrote the article after three of the world’s fastest sprinters tested positive for doping: American Tyson Gay and Jamaicans Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson.
Part of his argument lies in the limited efficacy of testing. For example, he said the test for one common endurance-boosting drug still delivers false negatives even after being used for 12 years.
Nonetheless, he says drug legalization should only go so far. If a substance starts to dominate or corrupt a given sport, or removes the “essential human contribution,” it should be banned.
But drugs that aid recovery from injury, for example, do not corrupt a sport, he says.
“We should assess each substance on an individual basis … [and] set enforceable, fair, and safe physiological limits,” Savulescu said.
Others say the zero tolerance policies should stay because the real issue is one of fair play.
Physicians Leon Creaney and Anna Vondy wrote an article in the same edition of the medical journal, arguing that legalizing drugs would only put more pressure on athletes to compete with higher doses of performance enhancing substances.
“Athletes who wanted to live a healthy existence would be pushed out altogether,” the authors wrote. “Soon, the only competition that would matter would be the one to develop the most powerful drugs, and athletic opponents would enter into an exchange of ever escalating doses to stay ahead of each other.”
But until sports organizations undergo an overhaul, nothing is likely to change, says Verroken. Some athletes will dope, nations will cheat, fans will speculate, and the show will go on.
“When I’ve talked to Ben Johnson, and to Dwain Chambers, and Tyler Hamilton, the one thing that they’ll never know … is how good they could have been without the doping substance,” said Verroken. “It has been robbed from them—by themselves, in many respects.”
Common Types of Doping
Effect: Increase heart rate, improve cognitive function, mask pain and fatigue, and increase endurance.
Use: Huge in the 1960s and 1970s, but around since time immemorial; includes coca leaves, caffeine, cocaine, and a myriad of synthetics.
Rules: All forms of stimulants are prohibited. Caffeine was taken off the ban list only as recently as 2003.
Effect: Help build and repair muscle tissue, and increase body mass by mimicking testosterone, the body’s natural male hormone.
Use: The level of allowable testosterone in the anti-doping code is higher than what is naturally produced, meaning most athletes could still take anabolics and pass a drug test. Used by weightlifters, sprinters, swimmers, team sports athletes. etc. Most notable users were Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, the East German women’s swimmers of the 1976 games, and the Chinese swimmers of the 1994 games.
Rules: WADA introduced a steroid Athlete Biological Passport in 2014. It tests an athlete’s urine for testosterone, tracking the levels over time and flagging any need for further testing.
Effect: Slow the heart and inhibit the effects of the naturally occurring hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Use: Acts as an anti-anxiety, anti-twitch medication popular in sports where steadiness is needed, e.g. shooting, archery, golf.
Rules: Sport-specific bans.
Diuretics and Masking Agents
Effect: Increase production of urine and can help athletes competing in a weight class—like wrestling, weightlifting, and boxing—temporarily lose weight rapidly.
Use: Helps flush steroids out of the system, or mask and dilute them to evade testing positive.
Rules: First banned in sports in 1988.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
Effect: Reduces body fat, increases muscle mass and strength, and improves tissue-repair.
Use: Mostly in power and endurance sports.
Rules: Banned but hard to detect—since testing began in 2010, only two athletes (at the 2012 London Olympics) have failed a test.
Effect: Increases red blood cells, which delivers more oxygen to muscles—increasing stamina and performance.
Use: Most common in cycling (Lance Armstrong had erythropoietin (EPO) in his fridge). The most common method is injecting EPO—a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates production of red blood cells. Other methods include infusions of either concentrated red blood cells or synthetic oxygen carriers.
Rules: WADA banned EPO in the early 1990s, but a test was only introduced at the 2000 Sydney Games. Since detection is difficult, the Athlete Biological Passport was introduced in 2009 to detect changes over time in a specific athlete, especially any blood doping indicators.
Effect: Can theoretically be used to build muscles, alter and adjust muscle composition, or boost endurance levels.
Use: Genetically increasing the amount of EPO the body produces, for example, would be undetectable because it would technically be “naturally-occurring.”
Rules: The use of normal or genetically modified cells has been banned since 2003.
Effect: Helps athletes gain a competitive advantage using technology.
Use: Swimsuit fabric can give an edge of as much as 10–15 percent (in a sport where half a second can separate the top eight swimmers), according to research published in “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.” A Belgian cyclist was disqualified at the World Championships this year for hiding a tiny motor inside her bike. Thermal imaging is now used at some races to detect heat inside a bike where a motor could be hidden.
Rules: In 2008, full-body LZR suits developed by Speedo and NASA grabbed attention when swimmers started smashing world records: 43 at the world championships in Rome. Michael Phelps broke seven more at the Beijing Olympics. The suits, which increase buoyancy and decrease drag, were banned in 2010.
State- or Sport-Sponsored Cheating
One of the most difficult types of cheating to ferret out, it’s most often revealed by whistleblowers and investigative journalists. Examples include the Russian Olympic teams and the BALCO lab in California. Several decades ago, it was the East German swimmers, then the Chinese swimmers who were caught.
Samples from athletes can be stored for eight years and retested as new detection capabilities are developed.