Doping, taking illegal substances in order to improve athletic performance, has cast a shadow over the Rio Olympics Games. With Russia in the throes of scandal, a fierce debate has sparked around the world as to what the future of sport will be.
Athletes have been cheating since the dawn of the Olympics. It wasn’t until 1968 that doping actually became illegal in the sports world. And yet, success and scandal still reverberate on our screens today. Even though the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) spends £130million a year trying to combat the problem.
Stripped of his record seven Tour de France wins in 2012, Lance Armstrong is probably one of the most famous faces to see his career ruined by scandal. While he never actually tested positive for banned substances, he admitted that is was “impossible” to win the Tour without doping when he was racing.
The reasons as to why doping is so prominent in the athletic world are numerous. The main factor, however, is that many substances are ‘undetectable’ in tests. Armstrong, for example doped in all his Tour races. Yet traces of the substance he used, EPO, were never found in his system.
As technology advances, substances will become easier to detect. Yet bribery and coercion will make the situation hard to control. Every country is responsible for their own athletes, meaning that it all comes down to trust in the nation. However, this is easier said than done. It emerged last weekend that Brazil controversially stopped testing their Olympic team in the build up to Rio 2016.
Why do Athletes dope?
Doping in sports allows athletes to perform better. Whether this is by increasing their red blood cell count, or by altering their genes. It’s dangerous, that’s for sure. While no evidence of death by doping has been recorded, there are numerous mysterious deaths of cyclists with EPO (one of the most popular substances) found in their systems.
It’s banned, it’s dangerous and it’s unfair. Yet according to a study published last year, up to 40% of elite athletes are involved in doping. There must be a reason as to why they’re taking the risk.
“I don’t think there’s a conscious motivation when people dope to gain an unfair advantage. My strong belief is that they are trying to level the playing field, knowing that there are so many others doping that they will be disadvantaged if they don’t,” says Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, talking to The Guardian. “I won’t divulge names but one sprinter, who doped with impunity, told me: ‘For several years, I was coming fourth or fifth despite training as hard as I could. Yet I knew that the people beating me weren’t training as hard nor did they have the same athletic capacity.'”
Athletes are arguably some of the most determined people on the earth. Training takes over lives, all building up to the biggest show – the Olympic Games. Being the best you can possibly be overrides all risks in order to get there, especially when you’re unlikely to get caught out.
The doping debate
The Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova won silver in the women’s 100m breaststroke final last night. She first failed a drugs test in 2013 and then again last winter. However, she was granted the right to compete in Rio; but not without the boos that greeted her as she made her entrance into the pool.
In an interview after the race, she told the press that it’s “the best I can do right now”. The dejected look on her face as the US anthem was played was heart-breaking. Lilly King, the swimmer who won gold refused to congratulate Efimova due to her scandalous past and announced a “victory for clean sport”.
The fairness surrounding doping is becoming a major debate amongst elite competitors and organisers alike. “There is a zero tolerance to the abuse of doping in my sport and I will maintain that to the very highest level of vigilance,” Lord Coe announced as he was named new president of the IAAF.
However, according to Julian Savulescu, professor at the Oxford Centre of Neurotics, “The war on doping has failed…About 80 percent of 100-meter finalists are or will be implicated in doping.”
What will happen in the future is unknown. While all efforts are being put towards the fairness of the Games, it’s scientifically impossible to detect every slight enhancement. This year sees Russian Paralympians excluded, but this won’t solve the problem. The USA equally has a bad track record when it comes to doping.
The debate won’t end soon. Is accepting what’s happening and allowing athletes to push themselves beyond their natural capabilities the only way to get past this?
By Holly Smith