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There are always controversies in the run-up to the Olympic Games, mostly involving money. How much the host city is paying. How much it actually wants the show in town. How much the IOC is getting. You could go on forever like that.
This time around, there’s been more than the usual amount of fuss because, of course, Covid, and especially the effect it has had on the second of those. Tokyo has decidedly mixed feelings about playing host to the Pandemic Games. The virus has added a whole new level of spice to the proceedings, and not one that tastes good when stirred into the stew.
But now it’s here. Despite all the hurdles, it has arrived and it will be splattered across our TV screens and news bulletins for days on end.
When you get to this point, you usually find people decide they’re going to jump in despite it all. “We’ve had a go about the money. Now we’re just going to get behind it,” one national newspaper editor said to me after a tour of the London 2012 site. “It looks really good.”
Now the sports have started, there’ll be the excitement, the “wow” moments across Twitter, especially after American gymnast Simone Biles proves that gravity doesn’t apply to her.
And yet… I really don’t want to serve as party pooper, especially because I’ve gotten a kick out of watching the thing since I was a kid. All those weird and wonderful minority sports that don’t get a look in at other times, they’re fun to watch, even in the absence of spectators this year.
Except at the back of my mind I keep finding myself asking: what is it we are watching?
Not in the case of Biles, who is worth finding the time to appreciate at whatever ungodly hour she’s on. The same is largely true of the team sports, some of the combat sports and the tennis, I imagine.
But when the track starts, and the swimming, probably the cycling too, because we all know about that sport’s chequered history (cough, Lance Armstrong, cough) and definitely the weightlifting, sports fans are, unless they’re hopelessly naive or blinkered, going to be left with nagging doubts at the back of their minds when it comes to what they’ve watched.
Was it real? Or was that race the middle-distance pharmaceutical championships? Or the parallel pharma bars? Or the needle-assisted swim? And so on.
The medals table, which is fun when you start getting down past the big guns and look at where Iran’s third bronze came from or what event Niger or Estonia excels at, should actually be renamed the provisional medals table.
After London 2012, there was an eight-year window during which competitors’ samples could be retroactively dope tested, and no wonder. The testers are always one step behind the cheats. They need the extra time to catch up. This time around it’s 10 years.
Olympic historian Bill Mallon noted last year, as the London window closed, that there had been 143 anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) either before, during or after the Games. Athletics, responsible for more than half, saw 19 individuals or relay teams stripped of medals. There were 18 weightlifters in the same boat.
“When people come to me or @OlympicStatman and ask about total medal lists, and then complain because it differs from another list, its because these numbers are continually in flux and now change frequently,” a frustrated Mallon tweeted. You can’t blame him.
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Russia topped the final London doping table, followed by Ukraine. But don’t let’s kid ourselves. This is a global problem. There is a long list of countries whose athletes got caught out, including western countries which usually like to wag their fingers at cheaters but keep quiet when their stars re-emerge after a ban.
World Anti Doping Agency (Wada) accredited labs processed a staggering 278,047 samples in 2019, a non-Olympic year, the vast majority of them in Olympic sports. That was itself an increase of more than 14,000 over the previous year.
Of them, nearly 1 in 100 yielded atypical or adverse findings, jargon for dodgy. So does that mean we can expect that a little over 100 of the more than 11,000 athletes gathered in Tokyo are juiced?
The actual number is probably much bigger than that. After Rio, Scientific American magazine contrasted the similar portion of Wada positives back then with the “29 per cent of athletes at a major international meet who, when promised anonymity by researchers, admitted to using PEDs”.
“Clearly plenty of cheaters are getting away with it,” it opined.
Russia’s team is in attendance this year but the “Russian Olympic Committee’s” athletes are banned from using their country’s name, anthem and flag, a consequence of the controversies over state-sponsored doping. It’s an uncomfortable halfway house that suits no one.
The Olympics requires athletes to spend years on end in training for that one moment when people are going to be watching, when the world cares about what they do. An injury at just the wrong time can wreck it. The same, this time around, goes for a positive Covid test.
Imagine what it’s going to feel like six years later if the athlete that finished fourth in, I don’t know, the 10,000 metres, with nary a consolation cheer from the pocket of their country’s fans, is told they should have got a bronze after all. Congratulations for doing it clean. The belated medal’s in the post.
So yes, what are we watching? The Olympics? Or the world pharmaceutical championships? And do we care? Whether Wada is doing enough has provided a rich seam for investigative journalists and documentary makers. Ditto the Olympic movement.
But until doping scandals start to hit the viewing figures in a meaningful way, and the revenues from TV which keep the show on the road start to dip, I guess the point is moot.
I’m off to look up the first edition of the provisional medals table before finding some clean events to watch.