The conversation around performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) has been a huge issue at Rio 2016, and became an even hotter topic after the International Paralympics Committee announced that they have banned (pending an appeal) the entire Russian team from this summer’s Paralympics; a result of allegations that Russia instituted a state-sponsored program of doping (authenticated by a World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) commissioned report).
The WADA report led to widespread calls for Russia to be banned from the Olympics. However – as you’ll have noticed from all the Russian athletes you’ve been watching in Brazil – the only blanket bans were issued to Russia’s athletics and weightlifting teams.
Russia ended up with 271 of their 389 member team cleared to be in Rio (although most who were found guilty of doping in the past were barred from competing).
While doping may not be an explicit tool of the state elsewhere, there has been an undeniable sense of glee among the British and US press to see Russia exposed in this way, with a narrative taking hold of Vladimir Putin projecting sport as a tool of Russian strength, and while that’s not incorrect, Russia aren’t alone in manipulating ideals of national pride through sport.
In addition, the procedures that governing bodies use to carry out justice are largely arbitrary, requiring a low burden of proof, which allows for potential abuses of influence. Speaking about this on the Edge of Sports podcast, David W. Larkin said: “The Girl Scouts of America has better due process procedures, in my opinion, than the IOC, FIFA, and most of the rest of the sports world. These are multi-billion dollar entities where you have, basically, carte blanche to do anything you want to, in terms of process, without protecting the rights of athletes.”
The moral binary implicit in sports is blurry. Many athletes will do what it takes to gain an edge in an incredibly competitive environment, where the finest of margins can make a difference to the outcome. All athletes will be taking various forms of supplements to improve their recovery and performance (whether it’s amino acids, or pre-workout energy enhancers). With the finances involved potentially so huge, it’s not ridiculous to wonder if doping is commonplace. Would you have ever heard of Lance Armstrong if it wasn’t for his (doping assisted) Tour de France wins? How many other cyclists of Armstrong’s era can you name without googling?
Usain Bolt catapulted himself to global fame with his incredible performances at the 2008 Olympics, and has since amassed a reported net worth of $71.4 million. This doesn’t mean Bolt has cheated, and doesn’t excuse the taking of PED’s by other athletes but it does help explain the factors that influence those who do.
Moral arguments stand on shaky ground when we consider the corporate nature of the Olympics. This is an event sponsored by Coca-Cola among other wealthy companies, and most of the money won’t be seen by the people of Brazil, so it’s extremely simplistic to hold firm principles about doping in sports – which is to a degree influenced by the high stakes resulting from capitalism – without critiquing the capitalism of the Games themselves.
It’s also the case that associating doping with certain regions of the world can fit a colonial narrative of savage vs. civilized, with the West presenting itself as being of strong moral fibre, whilst everywhere else is presented as lacking in such character.
It’s critical to remember that the formulation of contemporary moral codes were borne out of European enlightenment thinking, where Western Europe was seen as moral and the rest immoral.
And while Putin’s not an innocent victim, it’s this belief of inherent superiority – as much as a quest for clean sport – that motivates the presentation of him as a corrupt overseer of mass doping in Russia, similar to why there is a caricature of disorganised football associations in African football, even though the West’s ostensible morality is seldom accurate.
This isn’t human nature, but socialised behaviour – a result of the deeply capitalist, individualist society we live in.
 – This includes Yulia Stepanova, who helped blow the whistle on the whole operation.
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There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.