A tall hurdle for these Olympics

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The Summer Olympics, which open July 23 in Japan, promise to be one of the most unusual Games in modern history. For one, they will be performed before very few in-person spectators. They also are a year late, a result of the pandemic. They are officially still the 2020 Olympic Games. But one thing won’t be new: the suspicion that a sizable percentage of athletes will have broken the rules of fair play and used banned performance-enhancing drugs.

Just how many athletes will cheat in this way is difficult to know, but some estimate it could be thousands of the 11,000 or so who will compete. Australian swimmer Kyle Chalmers, who won the 100-meter freestyle at the 2016 Olympics, has said, “I can probably not trust half the guys I’m competing against.”

Testing to detect doping has improved. But in an ongoing “arms race,” new drugs and new ways to fool tests are always emerging.

In one of the biggest moves against doping in Olympic history, the Russian Federation has been banned from officially appearing at these Games after doping violations that involved hundreds of athletes. However, some 330 Russian athletes will still be allowed to compete under special rules: They will not officially represent Russia but rather the “Russian Olympic Committee.” The word “Russia” will not appear on their uniforms. The Russian national anthem will not be played nor the Russian flag displayed.

Other countries have seen a number of athletes barred, some of them medal contenders. Brazil’s top hope in heavyweight weightlifting, Fernando Reis, has been suspended for doping. Kenya was forced to remove two runners from its team because they failed to take all the required doping tests. And U.S. hurdler Brianna McNeal, who won a gold medal in 2016, has received a five-year ban on competing for numerous doping rules violations.

The rewards from doping for athletes and the prestige for their home countries from Olympic victories can be enticing. During the heyday of doping in the last half of the 20th century, East Germany became the poster child for drug-aided success. Olympic records set in the 1980s that remain unbroken today carry a suspicion of drug-enhanced performances.

Despite the ongoing battle against doping in 2021, there’s reason to believe the situation has improved markedly since the 1980s. But as long as the drugging threatens to create an uneven playing field, the Olympics will never fully become the ultimate showcase of athletic achievement they are meant to be.

“If the point of sport is to test the natural limits of human nature then, by artificially extending those limits, doping is at odds with the essence of sport,” writes Heather Dyke, a fellow in the department of philosophy, logic, and scientific method at the London School of Economics.

The Olympic Charter, set out in 1908, calls for “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles” where “the spirit of fair play prevails.” Athletes should compete under mutually agreed rules so that honest winners may be determined.

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