Earth & Conservation

Olympic Doping Has a 50-Year History

Russia may face a ban from the Rio Olympics, but it's not the first country to be caught up in a doping scandal.

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Russian athletes got a bit of a pass Tuesday when members of the International Olympic Committee delayed a decision on whether to ban the entire nation from the Rio games after revelations that Russians sports officials covered up hundreds of positive drug tests.

IOC chairman Thomas Bach is feeling pressure from athletes' groups to impose some kind of collective punishment for Russia's state-sponsored doping program, while weighing the political fallout of kicking a very big country out of the Olympics (along with its sizable TV and advertising money).

While big, Russia's doping program isn't the first time that coaches, athletes, doctors and researchers have worked together to find drugs to enhance performance -- and ways to avoid drug tests.

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Mark Johnson, author of the new book "Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports" says that doping culture has persisted despite nearly 50 years of efforts to weed it out. Doping programs have been run by countries, like Russia, the former Soviet Union and East Germany, as well as by teams, like Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Cycling Team and the French Festina squad.

Doping rings have also been run as businesses, such as the California-based BALCO ring that distributed performance-enhancing substances to sprinters, hammer throwers, boxers and major league baseball players in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Revelations about Russia's recent program – which included the use of security agents to smuggle out doping results from testing labs – is unprecedented, Johnson noted.

"It's the first time that the World Anti-Doping Agency has acknowledged what a collective endeavor doping is," he said. "If an entire country is tossed out of the Olympics, it means that doping is more complex than just a few bad apples."

Whistleblowers -- including a Russian track athlete -- first contacted the anti-doping agency back in 2010, but officials there say they couldn't investigate wrong-doing inside Russia. When a German TV documentary spilled the beans late in 2015, the story took off.

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In his book on doping through history, Johnson researches the story of the run-up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when many American athletes were embroiled in a case that few remember. It was a time that the United States was trying to play catch-up with the Soviet Bloc nations on the field of sport, a field that was dominated by the Soviet Union and East Germany.

During the 1983 Pan American Games in Venezuela, 15 athletes tested positive because of a new, more sensitive test for steroids was deployed. Strangely, a dozen U.S. track and field athletes withdrew from the games before competing, citing injury or illness.

"They didn't put a shoe on the field," Johnson said. "Presumably they left because they didn't want to get caught."

The following year, U.S. cycling officials started a blood-doping program in which athletes removed their blood weeks before an event, then re-injected it to boost their oxygen-carrying red blood cell count.

U.S. cyclist Alexei Grewal won the 1984 Olympic road race and later admitted using blood-doping along with eight other U.S. cyclists. It's something European and Soviet athletes had done for years.

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While this method wasn't illegal at the time, or even medically dangerous, it did seem unethical to some. International cycling officials banned the practice the following year.

Blood-doping was also commonly used in the professional cycling peloton, including by Lance Armstrong, who had his five Tour de France victories stripped. Armstrong's teammates testified to federal investigators that medically-supervised doping of blood, growth hormone, steroids and the blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin (EPO) was part of the U.S. Postal and Discovery teams from 1998 through 2005.

In China, track and field athletes admitted recently they were part of a state-sponsored doping program in the 1990s, according to the UK Telegraph.

China's doping secrets have yet to be revealed by whistleblowers or official documents, but that doesn't mean they don't exist, said Charles Yesalis, professor emeritus of health policy at Pennsylvania State University and a long-time scholar of doping.

"They are a closed society, they control their pharmaceutical industry, they are no different than East Germany or Russia under Putin," he said.

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Both Yesalis and Johnson say that the cops-chasing-robbers cycle of doping authorities and doping athletes will likely continue even after this most recent scandal with Russia. Too much money is at stake for sports officials and national organizations and sponsors to keep sports "clean," while many athletes face pressure to dope in order to compete at an elite level.

Johnson notes that many Americans eagerly reach for medication to soothe various ailments of modern life, so they shouldn't be surprised that athletes use them to make a living.

"Our relationship with performance enhancing drugs is healthy," Johnson said. "We embrace them fully even though we hold athletes to a different standard. Legislators are on board too. We have a different set of rules for athletes."

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