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Higher, faster, stronger. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

How the Olympic cult of performance breeds doping

The Rio Olympics haven’t even opened yet and already athletes are embroiled in multiple cases of alleged doping, including competitors from Russia and suspicions about others from several African and Caribbean countries.

This is nothing new – doping rumours and scandals have long been part of sporting competitions. In the 1904 Games, held in St Louis, US marathoner Thomas Hicks probably wouldn’t have won without liberal doses of strychnine during the race.

The first proven case of doping dates to the 1968 Mexico City Games. Since then, significant advances have been made in the fight against doping, yet it shows no sign of receding.

How can we explain the persistence of doping in spite of concerted efforts to eradicate it? To understand this, we must explore what leads to doping and ask if current anti-doping efforts truly attack the root of the problem.

Ever more tests

The current fight against doping primarily consists of identifying athletes who use illicit performance-enhancing substances, and punishing them and their entourages – coaches, and technical and medical staff – if they are accomplices.

This policy of control is complemented by efforts to educate athletes, especially young people, about sports ethics and the health dangers of doping. But these prevention efforts remain diffuse and inconspicuous, while the repressive component, which targets the most successful athletes, is continuously strengthened.

Anti-doping efforts advanced significantly in 1999, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) set up the independent World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). In 2004, a World Anti-Doping Code was adopted.

The code sets out standards in a range of areas: tests and laboratory procedures, the list of prohibited substances and methods, authorisations for therapeutic purposes, and so on. Since 2005, athletes have been required to provide information on their whereabouts to the centralised ADAMS database so that they are permanently accessible to potential controls.

At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, 50% of participating athletes were tested. Alistair Ross/Flickr, CC BY

Tests are constantly being improved, allowing them to detect new substances or delivery methods. Urine and blood samples are stored to allow for retrospective testing using methods that didn’t exist when samples were originally taken.

The doping race

Currently, more than 200,000 samples are analysed each year under the auspices of WADA, of which approximately 1% are positive.

Since the introduction of drug tests, positive cases have been detected at every Olympics except the 1980 Moscow Olympics – an irony given they’ve been referred to as the “Chemists’ Games”, when evidence of extensive state-sponsored doping was discovered after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Monitoring of athletes has become tighter. During the 2012 London Olympics, more than half were tested and all were warned that controllers could burst into their rooms at any time.

Ben Johnson ‘wins’ the gold medal in the 100-metre sprint at the Seoul 1988 Olympics. DPMS/Flickr

Behind the drive to improve athletic performance – the Games’ Latin motto translates as “Faster, Higher, Stronger” after all – hides the race to improve doping. This involves constant improvements in substances and methods to sidestep controls that are increasingly powerful.

The key is innovation, which requires financial investment and involves (almost) undetectable doping among elite athletes, the only ones who can bear its economic costs.

EPO has become ever more advanced, for instance, as has the use of blood transfusions to boost performance. The steroids behind the Balco case, which cost Marion Jones the five medals she won at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, were worlds away from those that led to the first big doping scandal – that of Ben Johnson, winner of the 100-metre sprint at the 1988 Games in Seoul.

The cult of performance

The roots of doping are deep; more structural and less individual, more systemic and less isolated. It is not a matter of deliberate choices made by a few cheaters; it is the direct consequence of the search for athletic perfection and all the work that it entails.

Doping is not simply a individual misdemeanour because athleticism at the highest level demands constant evaluation and, ultimately, results. To live such a life, an athlete must undertake rigorous training and coaching, suffer through pain and injury, go through performance slumps, overcome moments of doubt, and adhere to a rigorous lifestyle.

Athletes must overcome these constant tests to stay competitive in a world where the demand for performance is pervasive, where it is the measure of value and the condition of survival.

This cult of performance is as demanding as job conditions are fragile and contractual commitments precarious. Thus doping is not only a practice that improves physical performance, it is a response to a set of physical, psychological and contractual constraints.

In this regard, sport is not so different from many other professional communities where the pressures are strong, and where taking psychoactive substances (licit and illicit drugs, alcohol and others) allows individuals to be effective. The list is long, from financial traders to manual workers, through artistic circles and students at highly selective institutions.

The sociology of work teaches us that strong professional constraints favour the use of products that support high performance. Only in sports is this labelled doping.

None of this is to excuse or justify doping, particularly because it exposes athletes to serious health risks. But only by understanding why athletes dope can we improve what has been largely ineffective law enforcement up to now.

This requires us to abandon the individualistic and moralistic vision that portrays doped athletes as cynical cheats, and to better understand the demands of elite athletes’ lives.

Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published in French

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