By Eleni Mann
As the dust cloud of excitement around the Olympics settles, athletes and their respective countries reflect on their wins and losses. For many, representing your country on the international sports stage is a lifetime achievement, one that brings great personal fulfilment and global recognition for the huge physical, mental, and time commitments athletes have dedicated towards their sport.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics came at the perfect time where the world needed a common cause to support, but even the welcome distraction of this year’s games couldn’t prevent medal successes being underlain by suspicions of doping.
For the casual viewer of Olympic sport, doping appears to be a relatively new issue. However, doping has been around since the original Olympics, with the term itself referencing an Ancient Greek opiate. More recently, between the 1970s and the early 2000s blatant doping practices have had long-lasting impacts on Olympic sport. The world records of eight pertinent women’s track-and-field events have stood unbroken since the 1980s, adding to the ever-present pressure athletes face, to constantly be “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, attempting to beat world records set with the enhancement of dopants.
The term ‘doping’ entails multiple violations outlined in the International Olympic Committee’s ‘Anti-Doping Rules’, including the presence of prohibited substances in an athlete’s sample, and evading testing. Dopants are taken to help athletes train longer and harder. Blessing Okagbare was barred from competing in this year’s 100m sprint semi-finals after testing positive for excess levels of human growth hormone, a substance that supposedly increases lean body mass and reduces fat.
However, identifying chemical enhancement is a difficult task. Natural levels of substances vary between athletes, providing scope for artificial boosts in hormones such as testosterone. Doping tests also cannot discern natural from chemically synthesised testosterone. Instead, relationships between chemicals are used — if your balance between testosterone and epitestosterone is off, it’s a tell-tale sign of doping.
The Covid-19 pandemic also reduced drugs testing efforts by nearly half in 2020, enabling athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs for longer periods of time, and providing enough time for the drug to be cleared from the body before international events.
I can’t help but feel that knowingly participating in doping would tarnish any pride that standing on the medal podium would bring. But, for some athletes, winning is more than just for personal pride.
The World Anti-Doping Agency relies on the integrity of national authorities to complete most of the testing. For many countries, good athletic performance is a source of national pride, and therefore there is less motivation to maintain clean practices, pushing their athletes to win with whatever means necessary.
In 2013 the entire board of Jamaica’s anti-doping agency resigned after only a single out-of-competition test had taken place ahead of London 2012. Speculations also arose that the Jamaican authorities prevented anti-doping agents from entering the country, enabling Jamaican athletes to dope freely without fear of getting caught.
The danger of state-wide anti-doping shortcomings, as Jamaican doping accusations have proven, is that the actions of a few overshadow the successes of those who have, so far, maintained clean reputations. Most notably is Usain Bolt, who has spoken out about losing major sponsors as a result of Jamaica’s drug-testing inadequacies.
Sponsorships and monetary gains also push athletes towards doping. Athletic success comes with endorsements, campaigns, and bonuses for winning medals at international competitions. This year Cheung Ka-long became Hong Kong’s first Olympic champion in 25 years, an impressive achievement that was rewarded with 5 million Hong Kong dollars – around £468,000. Being the best in your sport brings both personal fulfilment and financial stability, further motivating athletes to partake in doping.
There is no doubt that, whether an athlete is doping or not, an incredible amount of talent, willpower, and mental strength is required for success in your chosen sport. Doping enables an athlete’s body to keep up with their desire to be constantly improving, constantly training, and constantly winning. And, if a high percentage of athletes are doping, the athletes that are consistently winning aren’t necessarily doping more than the average athlete. They continue to win because they train hard, have a strong mindset, and have had the opportunities to become the best in their field. Still, as American swimmer Ryan Murphy suggested in his post-race interview, it’s unfair to be racing in a final ‘that’s probably not clean’.
So, is the solution to the Olympics’ doping problem legalisation? By monitoring the athletes’ usage of dopants and regulating the introduction of new dopants into top-flight sports, the inequalities between athletes would be reduced, alongside preventing over-usage and abuse of substances.
Although by no means the perfect solution, it is clear that current methods of doping regulation are not working – unless medals and money suddenly lose all value, doping is going to remain prevalent well into the future.
Image: Verity Laycock