With the 2016 Rio Olympics now underway, the television screens of sports fans worldwide are filled with images of uplifting victories, crushing defeats and shining examples of sportsmanship. The drama of it all has captivated the world as athletes compete to make their nation proud. However, a far more sinister drama has surrounded these games, and it takes the form of state sponsored use of banned anabolic steroids in order to improve athletes’ performance. This use of banned substances is referred to as doping.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released a report July 16, 2016 detailing a Russian, state-sponsored doping program that affected many athletes in the 2016 Rio Games. In the month that followed, 167 Russian athletes were banned from competing, and it brought to light the serious nature and widespread phenomenon that is doping in the Olympics.
“The [Independent Commission] uncovered a system within Russia for doping athletes directed by senior coaching officials of Russian athletics. That was accomplished by the corruption of [Doping Control Officers] working under the direction of [Russian National Anti-Doping Agency]. The coaches were also able to achieve their objectives of doping athletes under their direction by knowing the wash out periods for various performance enhancing drugs,” WADA’s independent report into the Russian state-sponsored doping read.
This Russian state-sponsored doping raises questions about the underground world of banned performance enhancing substances. What are they? What effect do they have on the athlete’s health long-term? Does the testing process work? What exactly is the story with the Russian athletes?
Russia is not the first country to have a problem with banned substances. The United States suffered a blow to one of its national pastimes in March 2005 when Congress called multiple baseball stars to testify in front of a panel of senators. This followed accusations that the nutritional center BALCO distributed steroids to many players including Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. Later many of these players admitted to steroid use; this pressure led to more severe penalties for steroid use by active players in the league.
Anabolic steroids are drugs with a similar structure to the sex hormone testosterone, and when taken they can mimic the effects of testosterone in the body. With respect to sports doping, the intended effect is increased muscle mass. Russia’s former anti-doping lab director admitted to giving athletes a mixture of three anabolic steroids. The athletes would then add the mixture to alcohol, swish the cocktail of drugs in their mouth and spit it out. The drugs would then be absorbed into the cheek lining of the athlete; this method ensures that the drugs could only be detected in the following 3 to 5 days.
So, the intended effect of doping is to increase muscle mass and speed up workout recovery, but how much of an edge does it really give an athlete?
“They’re not really human. You know, they’ve altered their chemical makeup in a way that I’m not going to be able to do,” Alysia Montano said in an interview with “60 Minutes” when talking about her loss in the 2012 Olympics. She is one of the world’s top runners in the 800-meter dash.
In the scientific community, not much research has been done to determine how much of an edge steroids may give an athlete. There is certainly a desire to accurately predict the performance gains from these drugs, but there are many limitations to reaching this goal. In recent years, most studies use significantly less than the amount athletes typically use, so they cannot be thought of as true representations of the effects of these substances. There are clear ethical boundaries that deter researchers from designing studies that represent the real-life conditions under which athletes abuse these compounds.
Despite these limitations there are some studies that reflect some of the effects of these drugs. Overall, anabolic steroids are shown to increase baseline strength anywhere from 5-20 percent.
It is clear that steroid use has dangerous physical and mental effects, while also damaging the integrity of sport. Yet, abuse still occurs, and nations still promote the use of banned and sometimes dangerous substances by their athletes.
Why do nations think that they can get away with it?
The corruption of the testing system allows this to happen. The testing limits are often too high to catch all athletes that dope, and the positive-test threshold which WADA employed for its human growth hormone testing was found to be ineffective by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
As of late, Russian bodies responsible for anti-doping testing were found to be non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code. This was due to a state-ordered removal of positive tests. As a result, WADA recommended that the International Olympic Committee remove Russia from the 2016 Olympic Games. Despite the evidence of widespread corruption, the International Olympic Committee decided not to ban Russia, but instead to make decisions on an individual basis.
“For the 2016 Olympics our recommendation is that the Russian Federation is suspended … One of our hopes is that they will volunteer that so they can undertake the remedial work needed,” Dick Pound — former head of WADA — said in response to the confirmed Russian doping.
Russia has now won 44 medals in the 2016 games despite nearly a third of their athletes being banned due to the scandal. Doping continues to be a problem on the international stage as well as here in America.
The Rio Games will continue until closing ceremonies Aug. 21.