Category Archives: russian olympians

Update, don’t change, the Olympic record

dope

Here’s what can’t be done about drug cheats in the Olympics. You can’t rewrite history.

So, okay: Use the big stage of the Rio Olympics to rail against clear evidence of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. But think twice about re-distributing medals won by obviously tainted Russians in recent Games. The non-Russian athletes theoretically in line to inherit ill-gotten hardware may have been juicing as well. (Maybe they’re clean. But maybe they weren’t tested. Or maybe they had their own ways of beating the tests, just without help from bureaucrats.)

It’s not as simple as that old Superman episode in which the Man of Steel righted a wrong by reversing the earth’s rotation, thereby turning the clock back prior to a dastardly deed to make all well again.

The only answer, however unsatisfactory, is a full accounting of events. Such as: Ben Johnson won the 1988 Seoul Olympics 100-meter dash in a world-record 9.79 seconds. And Ben Johnson was found to have used steroids. And a 2012 ESPN documentary on that race offered strong evidence that most—maybe all seven—of Johnson’s fellow 100-meter finalists were guilty of doping at some point in their careers.

(Only Ben Johnson's shadow, right, remains?)

(Only Ben Johnson’s shadow, right, remains?)

The last time a government put its thumb on the Olympic scales with a national doping program involved East Germany in the 1960s and ‘70s, though that widely suspected foul play wasn’t documented for two decades. That’s when the United States Olympic Committee, arguing that its athletes had been victimized, agitated to upgrade or award medals to as many as 50 American swimmers.

Specifically, a USOC test case involved the women’s medley relay team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when U.S. star Shirley Babashoff grumbled, after finishing second, that the victorious East German women had deep voices and looked like men. (“We are here to swim, not to sing,” an East German coach famously declared.)

When East German sports authorities did sing in 1997 court testimony, acknowledging their chemically assisted Olympic triumphs, then-USOC president Bill Hybl called it “a matter of fundamental fairness” that the Olympic record book be amended and Babashoff and dozens of her American teammates be presented gold medals.

That didn’t happen, and probably shouldn’t have amid the excruciatingly complex unknowns, shades of gray, legalisms and politics involved. Not to mention anti-doping efforts that continue to be imperfect—even when honest, apolitical drug administrators are involved.

Among those who believed there was no more delicate surgery than rewriting history was Dwight Stones, who held the world high jump record for three years in the mid-1970s but was 0-for-2 in going for Olympic gold, finishing third in 1972 and ’76. In ’72, Stones was beaten by Soviet Juri Tarmac and East German Stefan Junge, two athletes likely operating under government-mandated steroids programs similar to the recent Russian model.

dwight

But Stones rejected the USOC effort to revise long-ago results. “It’s a witch hunt,” Stones told me then. “I look at what a great life I’ve had, growing up in the greatest country, where I could do anything I want, go anywhere I want. There is no way we can relate to what it was like not having freedom, growing up in the East German or Soviet system and how compelling the reward schedule was in sports at that time.”

So, leave well enough alone. Just make sure all positive tests and doping admissions—however belated—are added to the record of Olympic results.

Meanwhile, be careful about the International Olympic Committee order to ban all Russians from Rio who have served past suspensions for failed drug tests. Because there are a number of U.S. Olympians in that category being welcomed to Rio, most notably the 2004 Olympic 100-meter champion, Justin Gatlin.

Is it fair to the clean competitors that the IOC has chosen not to issue a blanket rejection of the entire Russian delegation—even though IOC president Thomas Bach has proclaimed “zero tolerance” for illegal substances and called the Russians guilty of a “shocking new dimension in doping” and an “unprecedented level or criminality”?

Then again, is there justice in holding every Russian athlete responsible for Vladimir Putin’s win-at-all-costs, juice-on-the-loose scheme? Might there be at least a few Russians who weren’t involved in, of weren’t aware of, the industrial-scale hanky panky?

The dilemma is that a broad assumption of every Russian’s guilt prior to Rio’s competition feels like profiling. Yet given the cynical, systematic swindle arranged by Russia’s front office, the IOC’s decision to leave the eligibility of Russian athletes to the various federations of the 28 Olympic sports resembles an abdication of its authority.

Former sports journalism colleague Phil Hersh, who covered 17 Olympics, nicely summed up the IOC’s non-action on his Globetrotting Web site by offering a multiple-choice of descriptive words: Shameful, fair, hypocritical, righteous…pass, punt and kick.

I pick “all of the above.” That is: a full accounting of events.

 

This sounds familiar: Olympic doping and politics

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An Olympics without Russians? This feels like where I came in.

In 1984, my first of 11 Olympics, the Russians and their 14 fellow Soviet republics staged an Eastern bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games. That was in retaliation for President Jimmy Carter’s politically motivated snub of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, a disorienting back-in-the-U.S., back-in-the-U.S., back-in-the-U.S.S.R. tit-for-tat.

(1980 Moscow Olympics)

(1980 Moscow Olympics)

(1984 Los Angeles Olympics)

(1984 Los Angeles Olympics)

This time, it isn’t Ronald Reagan calling the Olympics’ No. 2 superpower “the evil empire.” Now that the Court of Arbitration for Sport has let stand a world track and field federation ruling, Russia’s athletes in that sport face a blanket ban from next month’s Rio de Janeiro Games. Based on the July 18 World Anti-Doping Agency report on state-sponsored cheating, the International Olympic Committee could extend the Rio embargo to Russians in all 28 sports.

The difference in 1984 and 2016 may seem obvious: One nonattendance voluntary, the other imposed. Except, in both cases, it can be argued that two troublesome Olympic staples, politics and drugs, are simultaneously at play.

Take the second instance first: There is documented evidence that almost half of all positive drug tests at the past two Summer Olympics belonged to Russian athletes. (And that was before the former Soviet lab boss blew the whistle on his country’s dastardly operation to manipulate testing at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.) Still, Russian officials have couched the potential banishment from Rio as just one more American attempt to humiliate their nation. So: Politics?

The Russians point to information that other countries—Kenya prominently among them—are guilty either of implementing elite athletes’ drug use, or turning a blind eye toward the practice. Without—so far, anyway—any consequences. (The Russians say that some of their individuals may be guilty of juicing, as athletes are throughout the world, but their leadership does not condone it.)

As for ’84, when the whole idea of the Soviet boycott of L.A. appeared thoroughly political, at least one fellow didn’t think it was that clear-cut.

That spring, Bob Goldman released his book, “Death in the Locker Room/Steroids and Sports.” In a telephone interview discussing his research, Goldman proposed to me that, among the various and complex reasons the Soviets chose to stay away from L.A. was the fact that “those guys have realized they aren’t going to get clean in time. They know they’ll get caught in L.A.” for steroid use. So, then as now: Politics and drugs?!

The previous summer, at the Pan America Games in Caracas, there had been the biggest drug bust in sports history. Nineteen athletes from 10 countries were nailed for failed tests in a makeshift Venezuelan lab, and we reporters found it a bit suspicious that 13 U.S. track athletes immediately boarded flights home on the eve of their competition. (Some returned days later, perhaps having been reassured in private screenings that they were not vulnerable.)

The seismic Caracas event seemed to indicate either a belated push by international sports pooh-bahs to get serious about steroid use, combined with new diagnostic tools to do so, or merely a signal to Eastern bloc players who might be contemplating chemical assistance at the ’84 L.A. Games. Or, more cynically, a public relations move, so there would be no second-guessing of Los Angeles’ ability to catch any bad actors and, therefore, no questioning of test results. Talk about a political move.

Since forever, the Olympics has been a so-called “war without bullets,” a theater for demonstrating national superiority (minus potential bloodshed) that was particularly embraced by Communist nations. Even with the balkanization of the old U.S.S.R., its Olympic team kept emphasizing victory: In 1992, its team comprised of Russia plus most of the recently separated Soviet republics, it piled up medals under the banner of the Commonwealth of Independent States. (We called them the “Commies” for short.) And, after that, even without Lithuanian basketball players and Georgian wrestlers and Ukrainian weightlifters as Olympic mates, the Russians soldiered on quite well.

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Have they been winning through the decades because of systematic, government-backed fudging on doping? In “Death in the Locker Room,” Bob Goldman asserted that an American doctor, John Ziegler, had witnessed the Soviets using “straight testosterone” in the 1952 Olympics and felt that U.S. athletes deserved a more level playing field. Ziegler’s answer was to approach a pharmaceutical company to help him develop anabolic steroids and synthetic grown hormone.

Goldman wrote that Ziegler introduced those substances to American athletes “with the best intentions and saw his baby grow into a monster that frightened him.”

Best intentions. So, now that we have fostered our share of dopey dopers, a partisan, holier-than-thou attitude is not helpful. (That’s just more politics.) And the Olympics, while armed with nice ideas, has been proven to have rubber teeth in these matters.

In the case of the former East Germany, for instance, none of its athletes ever tested positive at the Games, but a series of trials and court testimony years after the dissolution of that country revealed an extensive government-mandated steroid operation. (It’s all in Steven Ungerleider’s book, “Faust’s Gold.”)

As an Olympic patriot, a believer in the Olympic ideal of promoting international goodwill through a sort of United Nations in Sneakers, I will miss seeing the Russians in Rio—if it comes to that. But I continue to root for all Olympic efforts striving for fair play in a setting that can be tempting to gold-diggers.

In that Bob Goldman book, he told of how he asked 198 world-class athletes, mostly weightlifters and their weight-throwing counterparts in track and field, “If I had a magic drug that was so fantastic that if you took it once you would win every competition you would enter, from the Olympic decathlon to Mr. Universe for the next five years, but it had one minor drawback—if would kill you five years after you took it—would you still take the drug?

More than half, 103, said yes.

So this feels like where I came in.