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Olympic excellence now leads to whispers of cheating

15 Comments

There may have been a time, when athletes smoked pipes, competed in everyday clothes and didn't tweet sponsored messages, a time that fewer and fewer people can remember, when sports were "real," not theater.

Theater requires audiences to suspend their disbelief, to pretend that the cardboard tree on stage is a forest and that the actor holding a skull is Hamlet.

Today, after decades of doping, the best performances in the world of sport are almost immediately followed by whispers and social media postings with one question: "What are they on?" That wasn't always the case. Sports used to be seen as the most real form of entertainment, with regular humans doing amazing things.

Paavo Nurmi, the first athlete to win five gold medals at a single Olympics, in Paris in 1924, was a former baker's errands boy who used his earnings from running to provide his family with electric light and running water.

Bill Foulkes, who played in 688 matches for Manchester United from 1952 to 1970, kept his job in a coal mine when starting out at Old Trafford, underground five days a week and training with the club on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila retained his Olympic marathon title in 1964 just 40 days after having his appendix removed. Swedish skiing great Ingemar Stenmark strapped on his first skis at age five.

Their achievements, one assumes with the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, didn't need to be second-guessed at every turn. The "Say it ain't so, Joe" reaction in more innocent times to suspect performances has become a jaded shoulder shrug of "Dude, what did you expect?" or its 140-character equivalent.

The acidic drip, drip, drip of cheating by greedy individuals and insecure governments in the past half-century caused this corrosion of the Olympic experience. Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, abused East German teenagers, urine-swapping Russian agents, they all brought doubt to sports. The paradise of being able to accept sporting excellence for what it is, simply excellent, has been lost.

Not completely. But enough that arched eyebrows have become as necessary as a cold drink and a comfy cushion when watching cycling, track and field, and other sports taken for too many rides by dopers. Olympic weightlifting isn't worth watching at all, given how history suggests that a sizeable proportion of medalists in Rio de Janeiro will likely be handing them back when the International Olympic Committee gets around to thawing out and retesting drug-test samples taken at these games, as it has done with those from Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. Those retests have so far yielded 98 positives from multiple countries and sports, including 12 weightlifting medalists from 2012.

So, of course, Wayde van Niekerk had to be asked whether he is on drugs after he broke Michael Johnson's 17-year-old world record in the Rio Games' 400-meter final. Hopefully, Van Niekerk didn't take the questions personally. They are just symptoms of the twice-bitten times; boxes self-respecting journalists must tick. The South African replied that he is clean.

Armstrong, of course, used to say the same thing, evading most journalists' sniff tests even more expertly than he and his teammates used to limbo under doping controls. Even now, after Armstrong's belated confessions that his Tour de France wins were a sham, the ease with which he lied remains remarkable for its assured delivery.

"I've never taken performance-enhancing drugs," he said in a sworn deposition in 2005. "How many times do I have say it?"

Re-watching that, thinking how much of sports' credibility he and other dopers have stolen, it is impossible not to feel cynical and angry. Likewise, watching any Russian athlete in Rio has been a struggle. Hard not to picture urine samples being passed at night through a hole in the wall of the drug-test lab at the 2014 Sochi Olympics for tipping down a drain.

Still, it is important to have some faith.

The reason to believe most of what you are seeing from Rio is not the 5,500 drug tests, which smart dopers know how to trick, or what athletes say, but because the alternative — not believing — is simply too depressing. Not trusting that most Olympians got here through hard work, good genes and honesty would mean that hard work, good genes, honesty count for nothing. And that is not true.

Not believing in Van Niekerk's time of 43.03 seconds simply because no one has run that fast before would mean also not believing that 43.03 seconds is humanly possible at all. Same goes for Michael Phelps' unprecedented 28 swimming medals or Usain Bolt's now seven (and counting) Olympic sprinting golds. Doubting brilliance simply because it is brilliant undermines the strongest reason for holding the games: so that humanity's fastest, springiest and strongest can get together to expand the envelope of what is physically and mentally possible.

So although that voice in your head asking "Is this for real?" is understandable, even healthy, don't be drowned out by it.

Dial down the cynicism, arch just one eyebrow, and try to enjoy the theater.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester . See his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/john-leicester

© Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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15 Comments
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Thanks TimTak, will have a read of those.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think that the out of competition testing varies considerably country to country. JADCO's reputation is far from stellar https://goo.gl/vRCEDM. I am not sure about the UK but blood doping, micro-dosing at night are very difficult to detect. Blood doping within controlled hematocrit levels is afaik, essentially impossible to detect since the athletes only inject their own blood cells. I believe that in the UK athletes are not tested in the time between 9pm and 6am, unless forewarned, which makes micro-dosing almost undetectable https://goo.gl/xNeE3V. Tyler Hamilton details the use of micro dosing and testosteron patches in his book, summarised here https://goo.gl/QOJktp. You would be shocked about the Brits, but I would not. A British journalist tested the doping passport, micro dosed EPO, improved his performance by 7% and and passed the test http://goo.gl/okMSKl.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

I think that a considerable proportion of the winners have taken steroids and or human grown hormone during their training, when depending upon where they are, they are rarely tested.

Interesting theory, where it falls down is the fact that all registered athletes have to have a "doping passport" and submit to testing all year round. You can be sure the rowers and cyclists would be tested more than just about any athletes, wherever they are. Theres no hiding from the testers by "vacationing". Not saying doping is not still happening - this is a very dirty games Im sure - but Id be shocked if the Brits are doing it in any significant numbers.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@ brits, that was only banter guys. No doubt team GB is having outstanding results all across the board, well done. Also impressed by the Americans, they kick ass in pretty much every sport.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I think that a considerable proportion of the winners have taken steroids and or human grown hormone during their training, when depending upon where they are, they are rarely tested. I think that in the former case this can cause a lot of bags under the eyes in young people, and latter case this may explain the prevalence of long jaws/chins, though of course, many have these features naturally. I still enjoy watching these super people perform.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

When you hear the Aussies, French, and Germans whine and make snide implications, you know you're doing something right. Keep going Team GB!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Reckon the Brits are on the sauce!

It's gets worrying when you find yourself above Germany in the medal count. I used to associate Olympic success with dictatorial regimes. And now some of the BBC announcers seem to have have taken on the style of their North Korean counterparts. Doping or politics? Lottery money or natural talent? Brexit or immigration?

On the other hand, a lot of those medals have involved sitting down or falling into the water. You don't need drugs for that.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

Reckon the Brits are on the sauce! Even the Chinese (behind them on the medal tally wtf!) think so ;) Is it their best olympics ever? I think their strategy of prioritising individual sports with lots of potential medals over team sports has paid off. No men nor women team in football, basket, volley, hand or water polo but plenty of track cyclists, rowers etc who can win 2-3 medals each. Sneaky poms

I'm not so sure, Goldorak. They are doing something radical we dont know about, and it is clearly working, especially in cycling and rowing, they are bossing the world around in sports which require incredible muscle strength coupled with endurance. Some of their rowers and cyclists look like superb rugby-league prop-forwards! I would not accuse them of juicing with zero evidence. I actually wish us Aussies knew their recipe!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Great Britain doesn't have a football team so they can't enter one. I think the previous Olympics inspired a lot of people in Britain.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Reckon the Brits are on the sauce! Even the Chinese (behind them on the medal tally wtf!) think so ;)

Is it their best olympics ever? I think their strategy of prioritising individual sports with lots of potential medals over team sports has paid off. No men nor women team in football, basket, volley, hand or water polo but plenty of track cyclists, rowers etc who can win 2-3 medals each. Sneaky poms

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Burning Bush, Carrsl2001: Lance did a wide mix of doping, including performance enhancing drugs and blood doping. Theres a good documentary on it where Lance himself tells about it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

more than whispers.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I was an active athlete for over twenty years and only tested officially (IAAF) once. When they took the urine sample the official personally observed my urine coming out of my penis into the container. The container was then sealed and labeled. Under these conditions there is no possibility of swapping samples.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Because he didn't dope with drugs he doped with blood. That's why it never showed on the test. They didn't have a test for blood doping at the time.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

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