Category Archives: olympic doping

Another good Johann Koss deed

Once again, Johann Olav Koss has reassured me that a career in sports journalism is not an entirely trivial exercise. Once again, Koss’ commitment to the ideal of a level playing field, of respect for rules and opponents, of the universality of games has affirmed the worth of having toiled in what hard-news reporters often dismiss as the “toy department.”

At 48, Koss, the former Olympic speedskating champion, has created Fair Sport, a nonprofit foundation offering financial and legal assistance to whistle-blowers with information about cheating in international competition. As the New York Times reported, Fair Sport will draw on private donations and commitments from global law firms to provide housing, criminal defense, immigration applications and psychological counseling to whistle-blowers.

This is just the latest good deed of a sportsman whose path I happily crossed a few times, beginning at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. He was 25 then, when he won three gold medals and set three world records in his native Norway and immediately donated his $100,000 bonus check to Olympic Aid, which had been formed the previous year to raise funds for children in war-torn nations.

Koss signed on as an Olympic Aid ambassador and recruited fellow athletes to donate 12 tons of sports equipment—which he personally delivered to children amid civil strife in Eastern Africa. Over lunch in New York City shortly after the Lillehammer Games, he told me about seeing “with my own eyes” how “the martyrs of their wars are the ideal of children in places like that. I don’t think that’s good for children to have people who die in wars as their ideals. If they could have sport, to be healthy, to have a social connection, that would be good.”

So, yes, it’s just sports. But to Koss, it not only was a vehicle of self-fulfillment but also something valuable enough to be shared with those disadvantaged kids, something to be protected from the skullduggery of doping. In 2000, he reshaped Olympic Aid into Right to Play, zeroing in on sports as a tool for the development of children in more than 20 countries. He joined the International Olympic Committee’s athletes advisory commission and worked against the use of performance-enhancing substances.

Over and over, Koss demonstrated that just because sports events themselves don’t mean a lot in the greater scheme of things, that hardly disqualifies them from deserving our attention on several levels. He was proud of his speedskating accomplishments and insistent, as he told a couple of us ink-stained wretches while working for Olympic Aid at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, that athletes “are very good role models. When you’ve dedicated yourself to play fair—that is very important—then it’s totally enough to be a hero in sport.”

President Obama struck a similar tone during his White House reception for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs last year, declaring it to be “worth remembering—because sometimes people wonder, ‘Well, why are you spending time on sports? There’s other stuff going on’—that throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together….Sports has changed attitudes and cultures in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately make us think differently about ourselves and who we were.

“Sports has a way, sometimes, of changing hearts in a way that politics or business doesn’t. And sometimes it’s just a matter of us being able to escape and relax from the difficulties of our days, but sometimes it also speaks to something better in us.”

This latest Koss project, Fair Sport, is the result of a recently exposed Russian doping scandal so pervasive that some of us sports patriots could feel ourselves sliding into cynicism. But, once again, Koss’ focus on our right to play, and play fairly, has spoken to something better in us. Sports, he said during a chat at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, “is for peace. It’s for education. It’s for health. It’s to reach absolutely everybody in the world, to understand how to win, but also how to lose, and how to respect everyone.”

He has convinced me, again, that it is totally enough to be here in the toy department, where I write this missive while wearing my 1994 Lillehammer Olympics sweater.

Lilly King, Olympic doping and the best revenge


Rio’s first case of a poor winner, 19-year-old American swimmer Lilly King, made me thankful for having gotten a glimpse during the Olympic opening ceremonies of four old Brazilian models of sporting graciousness.

Joaquim Cruz, Gustavo Kuerten, Oscar and Hortencia—endearing characters who brought a strong dose of courtesy to their significant, exuberant athletic skills—could offer a lesson to the boastful, lecturing King, wagging her finger at Russia’s Yulia Efimova in the process of King winning their 100-meter breaststroke duel.

In my more than four decades of covering international sports, it was a treat to cross paths with the four Brazilians during high points in their careers. And it was heartening to see them honored this month—Cruz and Oscar as two of the six who marched the Olympic flag into Maracana Stadium, Kuerten and Hortencia as two of the last three links in the torch relay to light the Olympic cauldron. Possibly candidates for most American viewers’ Who’s That? list, that quartet in fact ranks at the top of Brazil’s Who’s Who, both as athletic heroes and goodwill ambassadors.


kuerten relay


By contrast, we now have the talented but self-righteous King, who dismissed Efimova as a “drug cheat….I’m not a fan” and repeatedly made a point of her own purity.

Efimova indeed was suspended for 16 months after a prohibited stimulant was found in her system during an out-of-competition test almost three years ago. But her Rio eligibility involved two not-yet-definitive circumstances: Evidence of a state-sponsored doping operation in Russia (though it is unclear whether that touched all Russian athletes, while Efimova was training in southern California for years), and Efimova’s positive test in March for meldonium, which the World Anti-Doping Agency acknowledged may have been taken by Efimova and others—legally—prior to it being added to the banned list on Jan. 1.

The complexities—all the gray areas and uncertainties, including a Russian report that U.S. star Michael Phelps’ “cupping” therapy might be similar to meldonium use for promoting quick recovery—appear to indicate that Lilly King should stay in her lane. Just swim, already, and enjoy success on the grand stage.

Be a little more like Gustavo Kuerten—Guga, to Brazilians—who was a three-time French Open tennis champion and ranked No. 1 in the world when he was upset by Yevgeny Kafelnikov—a Russian!—in the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinals. Kuerten, who carried a big, goofy smile everywhere and refrained from fits of temper, was quizzed after that Kafelnikov loss on his perceived nonchalance about failing to win a Grand Slam tournament on any surface other than the French’s red clay.

“It’s not that I don’t care,” Kuerten said then. “But I’m not giving all my life for that. I think, if you don’t get upset when you lose, it’s very bad. If you’re comfortable with losing, it’s not fine. So I feel disappointed and I fell frustrated. But, also, maybe tonight I can have a good dinner, drink one beer, go out. If I had won, I don’t have this chance. So that’s the good part.”


Oscar—full name, Oscar Schmidt, though he was on a first-name basis with the international basketball community and known as Mao Santa (Holy Hand) in Brazil—introduced himself to the jingoistic U.S. basketball culture at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis. A 6-8 ½ sharpshooter, Oscar scored 46 points to lead Brazil to a gold-medal victory over the heavily favored Yanks, lifting Brazil from a 20-point first-half deficit.

Rather than gloat and trash talk, Oscar attributed his team’s victory to “using experience and excitement,” and agreed with the notion that the Americans were “the best, absolutely.” One reason he had turned down a chance to play in the NBA after the Nets drafted him in the sixth round in 1984, he said, was that he foresaw himself spending too much time on the Nets bench.

ATLANTA - JULY 20: Oscar Schmidt #14 of Brazil shoots a jump shot against Puerto Rico during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games on July 20, 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia. Brazil defeated Puerto Rico 101-98. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

“I would rather play 40 minutes and play with my friends” on the Brazilian national team, he said. Not until 1989 were NBA players allowed to play for national teams (and not until 1992 in the Olympics), and meanwhile Oscar began a run of five Olympics, 38 games, in which he scored 1,094 points for a 28.8 average.

He and fellow marksman Marcel Souza, who scored 30 in that Pan Am final against the U.S., were known in Brazil as the team’s “piano players,” while their teammates were “the piano carriers.” Oscar said, “One of us shoots and the other four go for the rebound. If my friend makes 40 or I make 40, that’s good, if we win. Any shot is a good shot. Any time. Sometimes, the shots go it.”

Cruz, when he upset world record holder Sebastian Coe of Great Britain in the 1984 Los Angeles Games’ 800-meter final, likewise served as a reminder that Olympic observers must be ready for the unexpected. He opened his post-race press conference by playfully inquiring, “Anyone here speak Portuguese? No? Too bad.”

He was, in the Olympic spirit, a citizen of the world—son of a recently deceased Brazilian carpenter, studying and running at the University of Oregon. To defeat Coe, who these days is a British lord and president of the international track and field federation, “It is impossible to describe my feelings,” Cruz said then. In two languages, he said, “I do not know words to say it.”


Then there was Hortencia—Hortencia Maria de Fatima Marcari—the splindy, excitable hoops star who made her first national basketball team at 15. She was 31 years old when she led Brazil to the gold medal in the 1991 Havana Pan Am Games, 36 and still a central figure with the 1996 Atlanta Olympic silver medalists. Flashy and emotional, Hortencia would pound the press table on her way downcourt, exulting over every point. She would gesture wildly in animated discussions with teammates. Hers was a universal display of competitive joy with which anyone, anywhere, could identify.


So, likely it is a curmudgeonly reaction to juxtapose Lilly King’s finger-wagging (and Michael Phelps’ similar gesture) to those Brazilian examples of sporting spirit and manners. The moral disgust over doping, after all, is thoroughly reasonable. It’s just that all the personal factors, political expectations and testing imperfections involved in substance abuse are unknowable.

Given that, might a gold medal provide contentment enough for King? Modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin argued, a bit magnanimously, that “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

But even conquering, without chemical aid, ought to need no further comment. As 17th Century Welsh poet, orator and Anglican priest George Herbert put it, “Living well is the best revenge.”