Doping and Delusion: Are Russians the Only Cheaters?

A young male athlete injects steroids into his biceps with a needle.

Are Olympic athletes using performance-enhancing drugs?

Absolutely—even if the testing at the Tokyo Games has yet to catch a high-profile athlete.

Maybe not all the athletes have used drugs, but if the whole truth ever came to light, I think the casual fan would be surprised by how many athletes have used performance-enhancing substances of some sort.

It’s just part of sports, even if everyone—from athletes to officials—claims sports are clean.

A head shot of writer Mike Warkentin and the column name "Pressing It Out."

Behind the Curtain

Back in 2013, I interviewed Dick Pound in Toronto. Pound, a lawyer, is a Canadian Olympian who helped found the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). He served as its first president, went to war with Lance Armstrong (and eventually won), and wrote the book “Inside Dope.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest Pound is the world’s foremost expert on doping. At the time of the interview, Pound had already seen it all and heard every single ridiculous excuse as to how certain chemicals got into athletes’ systems. He was matter of fact and blunt when answering questions. Some might say he was cynical, but I don’t agree. I think he was actually realistic in suggesting doping was widespread in both professional and amateur sport.

As proof of that, you’ll recall Russia’s incredible state-sponsored doping campaign was exposed after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The country was consequently banned from the Tokyo Olympics, though some are still questioning whether clean athletes are competing.

At present, it’s fashionable to mock the Russians as outliers—the few who broke the rules. It’s very likely that many people who are pointing fingers at the Russian Bear are doing so to take attention away from their own actions.

I’ll pull the curtain back a little further: Inside many sports, it’s widely understood that banned substances are just part of the game. Casual fans don’t get that info. But the higher someone climbs in sport, the more he or she learns about what’s actually going on at the top level.

For example, here’s what former pro cyclist Jeff King wrote about his time spent racing in Europe in the late ‘90s.

“My first weeks in Belgium made it perfectly clear: If you were going to race bikes competitively in Europe, you were going to race on drugs. From aspiring amateurs to entry-level pros to the celebrity athletes in the biggest races, drugs were simply part of the kit, like a spoke wrench, a pump and extra tire tubes.”

And that wasn’t even at the top level of the sport. The Lance Armstrong debacle eventually showed what was happening there.

More info, this time from the fascinating book “Speed Trap” by Charlie Francis, Canadian coach to disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson and others:

“I arrived at a central premise … : An athlete could not expect to win in top international competition without using anabolic steroids. … They had become an essential supplement at the world-class level, an indispensable ingredient within a complex recipe.”

Francis, who is now deceased, backed up his claims with all sorts of examples. And you can watch the film “9.79*” if you want even more insight. (I also recommend “Icarus.”)

Drugs in Sport: Not That Rare

I’ve personally talked to award-winning bodybuilders who told me exactly what they were taking—but this is the “free space” on the bingo card of steroids in sport. Bodybuilding is rife with drugs, and it’s obvious.

I’ve also talked to a world-record-setting lifter who saw others literally taking steroids during a “drug-free meet.” Another told me he’d been on drugs for many, many years.

A high-level fitness competitor told me some gains weren’t acquired just through chicken and protein shakes.

A top coach told me “‘drug tested’ does not mean ‘drug-free.'”

A world champion once told me “steroids are awesome.”

I won’t even get into the professional leagues Pound criticized as having “deliberately weak” drug policies. You can draw your own conclusions about what wealthy pros do to get an edge in leagues that aren’t interested in what they inject as long as they show up to fill the stands every night.

My conclusion after talking to Pound, reading as much as I could, and talking to many athletes and coaches personally? Sports are generally not “clean” at any level.

I know for a fact people have used banned substances to get an edge at low-level fitness competitions where the prizes are a bag of protein bars and a cheap red ribbon.

It would be foolish to think athletes follow the rules when the stakes are far higher.

Cleaned Up?

I bring all this up not to taint the accomplishments of any Olympic athletes but to put elite sports in perspective.

Beyond all the posturing and virtue signaling about testing and honesty and fairness, another reality exists. We’d do well to remember that when comments like this come up:

“I don’t know if (the race) was 100 percent clean,” U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy said after taking second place behind Russian Evgeny Rylov in the 200-m backstroke in Tokyo.

The race probably wasn’t 100 percent clean. But if it was dirty, it wasn’t because of just one rogue Russian athlete.

The problem is greater than that, and it most certainly goes beyond just one nation.

Let’s be real for just a moment: Russia is not the only country whose athletes are using drugs. Russia might be the boldest country, but its athletes are definitely not alone in searching for ways to win without following the rules.


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