Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cheating on an Olympic Scale

Pity poor NBC. The network paid a ton of money to get the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and the trailer for the games looks like a Greek tragedy, or maybe a French farce.

Every day we read about an unfinished venue. There's no certainty even the Olympic stadium will be ready on time. Cost overruns are rampant in a country on the brink of economic collapse. The government, serially corrupt, is barely functioning.

There is poverty and crime behind the beachfront facade, more places to avoid than visit. Security is said to be lax, with untrained novices manning terrorist checkpoints. Pollution is everywhere, the harbor laden with untreated sewage. And, to top it off, Brazil is the epicenter of the Zika epidemic. Young people of child-bearing age -- athletes and spectators alike -- are staying away in droves, avoiding Rio like the plague it apparently is. Tickets are being given away to fill empty seats.

Could things possibly get any worse? Actually, yes.

The integrity of the games themselves is being challenged. In a stunning development that has unfolded over the past several months, Russia was caught red-handed running a government-controlled doping program. Under pressure to boost its medal count, a Russian agency was instructed to shoot up its athletes, particularly the track & field team, but others as well. This is not a few zealous trainers. This is wholesale cheating orchestrated by Mother Russia herself.

Now lest this sounds sanctimonious, let's admit doping is not new. The East Germans did it for years, putting asterisks beside track and swimming records set in the Cold War era. And in front-page news, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was caught in Seoul, testing positive for steroids after winning the 100 meters.

To some degree, everybody does it -- usually individuals, not countries. U.S. shot putters and weight lifters often get caught. My wife and I cheered Marion Jones to victory in the 100 and 200 meters in Sydney in 2000, only to see her stripped of her medals for doping. Some of our best male sprinters have served suspensions for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

What country does it best? Outside of Russia, my guess would be Jamaica. Testing there is lax, and its runners are always under suspicion. How can you tell? Historically, track times are reduced in small increments, tenths of a second in middle distances and hundredths of a second in the sprints. Runners toil for years to gain world-class status. When an unknown bursts on the scene with absurd times or when a pedestrian sprinter suddenly muscles up and starts breaking records, chances are he or she has been juicing.

Here's an example. In the 2012 London Olympics, the Jamaican men, two of them virtual unknowns, swept the 200 meters. With a world full of very fast runners, what are the chances of a tiny Caribbean island going 1, 2, 3 in a headline event without serious chemical help?

Usain Bolt, the Jamaican world record-holder at 100 and 200 meters, was recently interviewed about the Russian doping scandal. He said, "If you have the proof and you catch somebody, I definitely feel you should take action." Not whether they did it, but whether they got caught.

How does doping work? It helps athletes train longer and harder and speeds recovery from injury. And Bolt is right. The key is not getting caught. Stay ahead of the testing by using drugs for which there is no analysis (an extra methyl group on the steroid) or, even better, know when blood or urine sampling is scheduled and stop doping in time for the drug metabolites to clear your system. Or, if all else fails, switch samples.

The problem may be getting worse. We recently learned 45 more athletes, 31 of them medal winners, were caught, testing positive after samples from the 2008 and 2012 summer games were reanalyzed. Little wonder there's cynicism about international sports.

What will happen in Rio? The Russians will be there, at least some of them. Confronted with evidence of national cheating on an unprecedented scale, the International Olympic Committee ducked responsibility and left decisions on who can compete up to individual sports federations -- swimming, track & field, gymnastics, etc.

It was a cowardly punt, but not unexpected. Russia is a global power and a big Olympic spender. Putin threatened to withhold funds if Russia was excluded altogether, and the IOC backed down.

In the weeks ahead, expect platitudes about protecting clean athletes and lots of huffing and puffing about the integrity of the games. But also expect a big Russian contingent in Rio.

NBC will have its work cut out for it. Its cameramen will have to crop out the poverty and pollution, and its announcers will have to sugarcoat the cheating.

And I'll still watch it on TV. All of it. Like the IOC, my standards aren't very high.

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