Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, step aside. Your doping scandals have been thrashed through the media left, right and centre. Yet, they can’t even begin to compare to what Russian sports authorities have done to show what can happen when winning (at all cost) is everything.
Russian athletes have been accused of doping on a scale unheard of before. What has happened since?
Following the alleagtions published some time ago in various European media, representatives of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have gone to Moscow and left the Russian capital a few days later with more than 3,000 samples. They took all of it to a specialized laboratory in Köln am Rhein in Germany. Considering Russia’s sports minister Vitaly Mutka told the Reuters news agency on the occasion that his country will provide WADA with everything, it raises a few uncomfortable questions. Such as: who guarantees that the samples WADA has loaded on the plane have never been tampered with? Not that one is paranoid but: the Russians have a history rich on disinformation (bluntly put: lies and obfuscation).
So, here’s the question again: who is making the guarantees everything’s above board and nobody’s trying to make any deals under the table?
It’s not a rhetorical question. And here’s the answer: nobody.
In case you’re wondering: remember, for example, the Chernobyl nuclear station meltdown? The one where everybody all over the world knew there was an unexpected release or radioactive material into the air in the Soviet terrirory (most reports went so far as to pinpoint the location within a few centimetres), and yet, the Soviets kept denying it all for days on end?
Or, to remain within recent memory, remember the Kursk submarine that went down in the Arctic, all and sundry aware of the tragedy and offering a number of helping hands, with the Soviets first denying there even was such a submarine, then, denying that it had some kind of technical malfunction, then, denying that they can’t save it by themselves, and, then, letting the entire crew die while help was just around the corner?
So, one more time: nobody can guarantee that everything’s going to be above board, with no under-the-table deals, so help us Nature. Not with the Russians in on it. Not with their president (a former KGB spy) in on it. Not with his KGB cronies helping him run the country any way they felt was useful – to them.
Here’s what happened
Originally, this scandal involved only the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). It would spread across the sporting spectrum as a forest fire in no time. Russian track-and-field athletes, swimmers, cyclists, biathlonists, cross-country skiers and weight lifters face charges of doping. Russian sports bodies’ chiefs stand accused of participating in a massive conspiracy that permitted all that.
IAAF President Lamine Diack’s own son, Papa Massata Diack, has been involved personally, too. Young Diack has been IAAF’s marketing poohbah. This gives nepotism a brand new meaning.
Germany’s ARD television network charged recently that young Diack had personally helped Russian marathoner Lilya Shobukhova make her 2009 positive out-of-competition doping test disappear from the record so she could take part in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. She paid 450,000 Euros through her coach Alexei Melnikov.
Not that it helped much: Lilya Shobukhova didn’t finish due to injury.
The French newspaper, l’Equippe, found more documentation. Some of it links Russia’s widespread doping culture directly to the office of then-prime minister (and today’s president) Vladimir Putin.
In fact, decrees authorizing Russian sports bodies to use all means at their disposal (whatever THAT is supposed to mean) to achieve victories have come down under Putin’s own signature.
Russian officials, as could have been expected, denied the ARD and l’Equippe reports as smear campaign filled with innuendo and nothing more. Except, just several months earlier, these same officials had banned that same marathoner Lilya Shobukhova for two years because of doping. To add insult to injury, Lilya Shobukhova now went public, saying that some of the money she had to pay for the cover-up has been refunded to her.
The entire operation was easy enough. The athlete to be tested under the so-called out-of-competition protocol would be notified well in advance that the testers were coming, with precise date, time and place included in the warning. Most of the tests require collection of urine samples. Still, those athletes were allowed the privacy of their own washrooms, with the commissioners waiting (discreetly) outside. That, despite the requirement that the commissioners were supposed to be present at all times when the samples were collected.
Dr. Gabriel Dollé, the director of the medical and anti-doping department at the IAAF, stepped down after he had been interviewed by this august body’s ethics commission.
How perfectly honourable!
The German TV ARD and French paper l’Equippe’s probes found many more details. Not that they had any sporting ideals in mind when they went public with them. Titillating scandals such as these help enhance ratings. Better ratings help enhance advertising. Better advertising helps enhance the health of the bottom line.
Sir Sebastian Coe, the legendary British middle-distance runner, boss of the 2012 London Olympic Games and the man expected to become the IAAF chief in the not-so-distant future says track-and-field is facing its worst crisis in the last four decades.
Depends on how you view it.
Canada’s own Ben Johnson had to return his gold at the Olympics at Seoul, South Korea in 1988. He won it in the crowning track-and-field race, 100 metres dash.
America’s own Marion Jones was involved in the doping lab BALCO scandal, and, sportingly enough, was economical with the truth when speaking to U.S. federal investigators. That landed her behind bars.
Johnson’s gold would eventually go to America’s Carl Lewis. This guy distinguished himself by not getting caught. Nobody in their right mind would believe that a human can run at 40 km per hour speeds. Horses can do that. Not humans.
Not surprisingly, the drug Johnson was caught with was Stanozolol, a medication used most frequently to improve muscle growth, red blood cell production, increase bone density and stimulate the appetite of debilitated or weakened (what? yes, you do hear it right!) horses. Stanozolol can be used for people, too, to help treat anemia and similar conditions. But definitely not in doses whose traces were found in Johnson’s body.
The numerous medals won by Marion Jones went all over the place to other female athletes whose medical and coaching staffs knew better than to associate with BALCO too openly.
Sir Sebastian used to face accusations of cheating himself, too.
Again, the point of view depends on the angle.
Having noticed that most African runners spend most of their time training in high altitudes, only to come down to race in lower elevations and beat everybody hands down, Sebastian Coe (as he was then) followed in their footsteps.
Is that cheating?
If you tried to replicate the effect training at high altitudes has on an athlete’s body by injecting oxygen into an athlete’s blood, it would be called blood doping. That’s illegal. If, on the other hand, you were to spend a few months in, for example, the Andes, now, that would be considered an innovative approach to training. Yet, the effect is the same.
Was Sebastian Coe cheating? You be the judge.
That uncomfortable angle might, however, explain Sir Sebastian’s calls for prudence. Still, he said, if the accusations are proven beyond any doubt, the penalties should be harsh enough to deter any followers.
He’s definitely not afraid of the embarassment a proper clean-up job would cause the sports to suffer, Sir Sebastian said. He is scared that if people try to sweep all these allegations under the proverbial rug, spectators would lose any interest they have had so far in watching sports.
Which is all this is about.
Sir Sebastian should have mentioned Russian officials’ penchant for publishing fake information, distributing falsified data all over the place or, to put it bluntly, lying through their teeth. It’s called disinformation, and if anyone’s a past master in this field of human endeavour, it’s the Russians. History proves it beyond any doubt, reasonable or not.
Sir Sebastian didn’t say it. Why not? As mentioned, he’s a presumed heir to the top post at the IAAF. Except, he still would face a vote by the body’s general assembly. Here are the numbers: the IAAF consists of 212 member federations. It used to be 213 but the November 2010 meeting of the IAAF Council found that the Netherlands Antilles was going to cease its independent existence.
Like it or not, the Russians still carry considerable weight within that body. They can have unhealthy influence on the outcome of the voting. So, Sir Sebastian, who used to say the Russians ought to be stripped of all of their medals and let’s be done with it once and for all, is now backpedalling. Ever so gently, but still, distinctly enough.
So, what’s the issue?
The issue is that all this outcry and indignation are hypocritical.
Nothing more, and nothing less, either.
Professional sports are all about business. They are part of entertainment industry. So, they do their utmost to entertain. If they were to manage to find ways for humans to catch lightning with bare hands and twist its shape according to their spectators’ wishes, so much the better.
That people are wiling to pay good money to watch well-trained humans (animals would seem to sound better and closer to the truth) performing acts beyond the limits of human abilities is a strange phenomenon. It’s not particularly new. Attendance at Greek Olympiads, predecessors of the modern extravaganzas, would make today’s organizers turn yellow with envy. Doping and outright cheating were a normal way of doing things then, and nobody would even bother to shrug about it, let alone create expensive bodies to oversee what these bodies call “the cleanliness of the sports.”
That professional sports would develop into a global business of such gigantic proportions is a sign not of the athletes’ godly (or ungodly?) abilities but of pure marketing genius.
It is also a sign of something more sinister. Nobody described it better than the British writer, George Orwell. He wrote an essay for the Tribune newspaper in December of 1945, commenting on the visit of Soviet football team Dynamo. Some people, not so much out of sheer naivete but, rather, knowing a marketing opening when they saw one, would go so far as the herald the visit as a sign of everlasting peace between the democratic (no matter how Royal) Great Britain, and the communist Soviet Union.
After all, who could blame them if “everlasting” didn’t last even till the end of Soviet footballers’ trip to Great Britain? The organizers (meaning: the guys who promised everlasting peace) have collected the spectators’ money and spent the rest of the time laughing all the way to the bank.
That average people in both countries were still going hungry following the war was not much of a concern to them.
Anyhow, herewith a few quotes from George Orwell’s piece.
The Sporting Spirit
I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.
Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.
People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. …
Then, chiefly in England and the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.
If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will “lose face”.
Thus spake George Orwell in 1945. Remember: in 1945. Thus spake George Orwell 69 years ago.
He said it all, and let’s leave it at that.