Track and Field·Analysis

Russian doping scandal: Cheating athletes a product of corrupt system

In light of the accusations of systematic doping and coverups at the highest levels in Russian track and field, Olympic rowing champion Adam Kreek writes that a corrupt system must be held accountable along with the cheating athletes.

Report shows deception reaches to the top

Commission chairman Dick Pound, centre, and panel members Richard McLaren, left, and Guenter Younger presented their findings Monday in Geneva on allegations of widespread doping and deception involving Russian track and field athletes. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Is this the new Cold War? In announcing the findings of his independent commission's investigation into alleged doping and coverups involving Russian track and field athletes, Dick Pound mentioned the "nuclear option" of banning Russia from the Olympics. Now I'm waiting for Russia's sports leaders to tell us that their athletes are the unfair victims of a Western sports system that is jealous of their physical prowess.

In case you weren't watching, Pound's panel (commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency) outed a number of Russian track and field athletes for their use of performance-enhancing drugs after scrutinizing allegations put forth in a documentary by German investigative reporter Hajo Seppelt. More disturbing is the strong evidence of systemic corruption and deception by Russian coaches, sports administrators, medical professionals and even government officials.

Doping scandals arise because the Olympic movement has a duty to protect the health of athletes. Without transparency and public hand-wringing, no one would be outed. Doping would be brushed under the table and we could soon have armies of genetically mutated gladiators fighting for our amusement. This may sound entertaining until we see the real, human costs. Athletes who engage in doping could face health risks later in life.

Why did this happen?

Doping is not an issue limited to Russia, and athletes have always looked for a competitive edge in sports. A century ago, some athletes and coaches would go so far as to prepare mixtures of heroin, cocaine, caffeine and strychnine in an effort to boost their performance. Strychnine is rat poison.

Controls gradually arrived protect the long-term health of athletes, but there was resistance. British cyclist Tommy Simpson supposedly once said, "If 10 doses kill me, I'll take nine." Tommy died of an overdose of ephedrine and brandy in the 1967 Tour de France.

Not every cheating athlete dies, nor is every cheater caught. Cheaters can win medals and go on to careers as coaches, trainers, administrators and politicians. The current situation in Russia "may be a residue of the old Soviet Union system," Pound said. How difficult is it to change a system where rewards — and careers — have been given to cheaters who were never caught?

Russian coaches and administrators are fighting for their jobs. Working in high performance sport is a stressful occupation. Results are obvious. If you do not perform, you quickly lose your job. If the coach or administrator has found past success using banned substances, and faced no serious consequences, what do you think is the likelihood of the process continuing in the next sporting generation?

What can we learn?

The rhetoric of "do whatever it takes to win" is very dangerous, and will only hurt the athlete in the long term. Pragmatic coaches, athletes, and administrators will always have time to argue that "doping and not getting caught is part of the game." They will also say "We know the long-term risks and are willing to take them." This Machiavellian approach to winning only creates more turmoil in the long term. 

If "do whatever it takes to win" becomes the predominant rhetoric in the top end, you could see a trickle-down effect to regional and junior events. Eager teens and their driven parents could start copying these doping techniques, while the athletes who play clean become even more bitter, robbed of discovering their true talent and competing in larger events. Soon you could see a long list of negative long-term health effects from participation in sport, including psychological and emotional consequences.

Cyclist Tyler Hamilton, an admitted doper and a former teammate of Lance Armstrong, wrote in his 2013 book "The Secret Race" about the stress and discord he experienced while keeping a secret. "It's difficult to tell the truth, but it feels good [to come clean]. I lied to my parents, my brother, my sister, my friends, co-workers. But enough was enough. It took its toll. It was very difficult to hold in."

What can we do?

More than banning outed athletes, the IAAF must find ways to hold its administrators, coaches, laboratories, doctors and leaders of the sports movement in Russia accountable. The athlete takes the drug, but the system that enables and encourages doping is far more dangerous. The system must be punished.

The IAAF must do this not only to ensure that competition is fair but for the health of all athletes involved. We can't understate the effects that doping could have on the long-term health of athletes. Creating an environment where athletes feel the need to dope will only compound the problems.In essence, doping is a cancer in the sports system which will infect more athletes unless rooted out at its source.

Adam Kreek won an Olympic gold medal as a rower with the Canadian men's eight team in 2008.


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