Road to Paris 2024: Doping in the Olympics

Recently, the U.S. Olympic figure skating team members were told they would receive gold medals due to the disqualification of Russian skater Kamila Valieva for doping at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. Stories like this are nothing new; doping has been prevalent in Olympic competitions for over 100 years.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that the banned skater, Valieva, is blaming her positive test on a strawberry dessert that was prepared on a cutting board where her grandfather's angina medication was crushed. However, top courts don't believe her, and Russia is appealing the decision.

With the 2024 summer Paris Olympics on the horizon, doping is a key concern. The term "doping" refers to the use of banned substances in competitive sports. Many see it as a way for competitors to gain an advantage over their peers. Since 1968, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has taken steps to fight doping mania.

In 1999, the IOC supported the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency, known as the WADA. This international independent agency aims to lead a global effort for doping-free sports.

The WADA’s most recent anti-doping rule violation report released in May 2023 shows 935 of 149,758 samples resulted in anti-doping rule violations or ADRVs.

Sports with the most ADRV in 2020:

  1. Athletics – 107
  2. Cycling – 94
  3. Weightlifting – 89
  4. Powerlifting – 83
  5. Body Building – 77

History of doping in the Olympics

Until the IOC started drug testing in 1968, getting the extra edge from performance-enhancing drugs was a choice for Olympic competitors. The first recorded doping case occurred at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis when Tom Hicks, an American marathoner, consumed small amounts of strychnine with brandy and a little egg white from his coach Charles Lucas.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strychnine is a white, odorless, bitter crystalline powder that may be consumed orally, breathed in, or injected. The CDC says strychnine is a strong poison that can lead to serious adverse health effects or even deaths. Previously, strychnine was available as a pill to treat human ailments. Today, it is used as a pesticide to kill rats. The substance is currently listed on the WADA’s prohibited list.

Lucas admits to giving Hicks the concoction at the 22-mile mark to help him finish the race strong. Following the race’s completion, Hicks collapsed and required medical attention from four physicians. His medal was not removed due to his doping.

As time went on, more doping cases continued. The 1950s saw the usage of amphetamines, stimulant drugs that speed up messages between the brain and the body, plus testosterone. In 1952, U.S. Olympic weightlifting coach Bob Hoffman accused Soviet Union competitors of using the male hormone to increase strength.

In 1967, the IOC established the IOC Medical Commission. The move came one year before the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, which was the first competition to hold drug testing. The IOC Medical Commission tested for stimulants, narcotics, sympathomimetic amines, antidepressants, and tranquilizers using gas chromatography. No tests were present for anabolic steroids. The 1976 Olympics was the first time testing for anabolic steroids would be present.

More doping cases continued to arise throughout the 1970s and 1980s as testing became more rigid. Since the IOC started testing for doping, more than 400 cases have been uncovered. However, no repercussions match the heights of the Russian doping scandal that banned the country from competing in Olympic events.

Russian doping scandal

An independent commission established by the WADA in 2015 released a report that detailed allegations of Russian state-sponsored doping. Whistleblower testimony from Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia's anti-doping laboratory, revealed a sophisticated system to rig the drug testing process and cover up results before the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

The IOC suspended Russia for its doping scheme in 2017. For the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Russian athletes who passed doping tests were eligible to compete in the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) contingency with no Russian flag or national anthem on display.

In 2019, the WADA imposed a four-year ban on Russia for the Olympic games after a Moscow lab altered data relating to anti-doping. The punishment was reduced to two years, but Russian athletes were unable to represent their colors in the 2021 and 2022 Olympic Games. Athletes competed in these games under the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).

For the games in Paris, Russian athletes will compete as individual neutral athletes and not a part of the ROC due to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

Olympic doping rules

WADA says athletes who are competing at the national or international level may be tested for doping anytime or anywhere. Competitors may be tested by National Anti-Doping organizations, International Federations, or Major Event organizations. Individuals selected for doping control testing must have the option for a urine or blood sample.

A spokesperson from WADA tells Healthnews that they use a number of resources to "protect clean sport." While testing is important, they've also implemented an education department. "Anti-doping is about supporting athletes and preventing doping as much as it is about detecting wrongdoing and punishing offenders."

The IOC notes that it has established a zero-tolerance policy to combat doping. The IOC delegates decisions on ADRV to the Anti-Doping Division of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Valieva, the 17-year-old recently punished Russian figure skater, was handed four years of ineligibility by the CAS on Jan. 29. Her punishment retroactively commenced on Dec. 25, 2021.

WADA's prohibited list includes:

  • Non-approved substances
  • Anabolic agents
  • Peptide hormones, growth factors, related substances, and mimetics
  • Beta-2 agonists
  • Hormone and metabolic modulators
  • Diuretics and masking agents
  • Gene and cell doping
  • Stimulants
  • Narcotics
  • Cannabinoids
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Beta-blockers

"WADA exists to protect the integrity of sport and the right of athletes to compete on a level playing field. Of course, the protection of clean sport is a global movement. Working with our partners and stakeholders across the world, WADA strives to uphold fairness so that athletes can concentrate on their pursuit of excellence," says the WADA spokesperson.

The 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris are set to start on July 26. With months still to go to the games, more talk of doping is likely to arise.

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