A drug-free Olympics could be Sochi’s antidote to a bad image

Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada had to undergo an unannounced doping test hours before performing. Ivan Sekretarev/AP

Since anti-doping tests were introduced at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics there have only been 20 positive drug tests in Winter Olympic competition. Compared to the Summer Olympics, which has more athletes and more sports with a history of doping, the Winter Olympics appear relatively clean. Russia will be hoping to maintain this record.

A doping scandal would only add to the criticism Russia has already received for the style of hosting the games, but ensuring a “clean” Olympics can enhance their credibility. With the help of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), this is how they’ll do it.

Some of the preparations for the Sochi Games skated on thin ice. The Moscow Anti-Doping Centre was provisionally suspended and numerous athletes tested positive in the build up to the Games. Russia’s poor doping record also cast doubt on the credibility of anti-doping controls.

The IOC has invested $1 million into pre-Games testing with “many millions of dollars more” committed to in-competition tests. Despite this not all doping will be detected.

A tough approach

Nevertheless, the Sochi Organising Committee and the IOC have assured us that drug testing at Sochi will be the “most stringent in the history of the Olympic Winter Games” with a “tough drug-testing net” in place.

This tough approach includes increased testing prior to the games as well as during them. About 2,450 tests will be conducted overall, with additional unannounced testing during the games. This is a 57% increase from the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. Particular attention will be paid to team sports such as ice hockey and events with a history of doping such as cross-country skiing and biathlon.

Anti-doping regulation is formed under the authority of the IOC, which appoints a Medical Commission to oversee all doping controls. The Sochi Organising Committee is responsible for implementing the doping controls with assistance from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The IOC releases Anti-Doping Rules for each Olympics and these operate in conjunction with the World Anti-Doping Code and the WADA Prohibited List of banned substances and methods.

Despite earlier concerns over quality control, the IOC assures audiences – and warns drug cheats – of Sochi’s drug testing integrity. WADA has global oversight of anti-doping laboratory accreditation and has kept a watchful eye on the Sochi Games preparations. When it was feared the Russian laboratory assigned the task of processing tests was not looking up to scratch, WADA asked the IOC to appoint international quality control experts to ensure the accuracy and reliability of results.

Testing procedures

Urine and blood-based tests will look for stimulants, masking agents, beta-blockers, alcohol, narcotics and cannabis, as well as tests for human growth hormone. Samples will be stored for eight years (extending to ten years from 2016) and can be re-tested as new technologies become available.

For the first time in Olympic competition, the Sochi Games will use the “long-term metabolites” method. This new procedure can detect smaller quantities of steroids for a longer period after their use. Over the past 12 months this test has found hundreds of positive cases, revealing more positives in older samples. This retrospective aspect of testing that is perhaps the most significant in the campaign against doping. The IOC is already testing samples from the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.

Exactly how retrospective testing will have an impact on athletes is, as yet, unknown. Some commentators see the ideology driving the anti-doping campaign as less than clear. They point to the fact that attitudes towards doping have not always taken this punitive approach.

There are also calls for anti-doping regulation to pay more attention to the complexities of sport and the impact on athletes’ health and wellbeing. Nevertheless, the danger doping presents to the stability of sport – it is claimed – necessitates strict surveillance and harsh penalties for athletes.

Doping scandals in any sport can damage the reputations of athletes as well as sporting organisations. This is something the IOC is well aware of. The high financial investment, commercial returns and international prestige attached to Olympic sport mean that keeping the Games clean is as much about the legitimacy of elite sporting organisations, WADA and the governments of host nations as it is about the integrity of sport.

A clean Olympics is an opportunity to showcase a “modern Russia”. Ensuring that doping is properly regulated at the Sochi Games is part and parcel of preventing international embarrassment for the Russian government on the world stage.

It is clear, however, that the challenges facing the Sochi Olympics extend beyond whether or not anti-doping regulation is successful at deterring or catching guilty athletes. With the world’s attention drawn to Russia’s anti-gay legislation and the threat of terrorism, catching “drug cheats” might be just the shot in the arm they are looking for.