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)
(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.
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.