By | Updated Jan 26, 2017 8:56 AM UTC

If a pill or injection could make you the best in your field, would you take it? Even if that was cheating and might damage your health? For the likes of Lance Armstrong and Ben Johnson, and apparently Russia's Ministry of Sports, the answer was “bring it on.” The temptation is only heightened when state-of-the-art stimulants are undetectable in the latest drug tests. But the advantage in this long-running cat-and-mouse game may be swinging back toward anti-doping authorities, thanks to the prolonged storage of test samples. That's allowed specimens to be reanalyzed using newer technologies, resulting in the nabbing of dozens of abusers who had thought they got away with it. Combine that threat with the ever-present risk from whistleblowers, and drug cheats may rest a little less easy.

The Situation

Some 98 athletes  — including at least 40 medalists — tested positive for banned substances following reanalysis of samples stored from the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics. Among the guilty parties, track and field, weightlifting and Russians dominated. The latest haul included three Chinese women's gold medalists in weightlifting and one of Usain Bolt's Jamaican relay teammates — costing the champion sprinter one of his three gold medals from the Beijing Games. Weeks before the 2016 Rio Olympics, the World Anti-Doping Agency published allegations of Russian state-directed doping including at the 2014 Sochi Games. Russia's Ministry of Sport “directed, controlled and oversaw the manipulation of athletes' analytical results or sample swapping,” according to its report. The International Olympic Committee rejected the anti-doping agency's call to disqualify Russia from the Rio Games, though Paralympics organizers enforced a ban. Russia’s track and field team had already been barred following revelations by a whistle-blowing runner who was labeled "Judas" by Russian President Vladimir Putin. As for the actual drug-testing in Rio, the anti-doping agency said it suffered from “serious failings.” In a separate development, the practice of allowing athletes to take banned drugs on medical grounds became a discussion point after hackers released details of sports stars who had received exemptions, including cyclist Bradley Wiggins and tennis players Serena and Venus Williams.

The Background

Athletes for centuries have sought a chemical edge. The ancient Greeks used alcoholic concoctions and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Taking stimulants was an accepted practice when Thomas Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon race — and almost died — after a mixture of brandy and strychnine got him to the finish line. Within a decade, Austrian horses had tested positive (cocaine and heroin were commonly administered) in some of the earliest incidents of illegal doping. The Olympics began prohibiting drug-taking in the 1960s but has long struggled to keep up with the dopers. The most popular methods have included blood doping (via injections of the hormone EPO or blood transfusions) and taking anabolic steroids or human growth hormone. Cycling, baseball and track and field have experienced decades of scandals and high-profile tumbles from grace. The doping Hall of Fame includes the likes of Major League Baseball's Alex Rodriguez, cyclist Lance Armstrong and sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones. State-sponsored doping programs are nothing new; the East German swimming team that dominated the 1976 Olympics later sued the government for feeding athletes anabolic steroids.


The Argument

Critics of the existing system maintain that the crusade against doping has failed. The anti-doping agency missed the Russian conspiracy entirely until a whistle-blower stepped forward. Some support a doping free-for-all for substances that do not pose health risks. That, opponents say, would reduce sports to a competition about taking the best stimulants and would have worrying implications for youth and amateur sports. They note a catalogue of suspicious deaths possibly related to performance-enhancing drugs. A survey from the 1980s revealed that most elite athletes would take a drug that guaranteed success but killed them within five years. A 2012 poll posing the same question (the Goldman dilemma) yielded a result of about 1 percent. Anti-doping enforcers say drug-taking will never be eradicated but that they need additional investigatory powers and financial support to keep notching small victories. According to Dick Pound, the former long-serving head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, sports remains in “a state of catatonic and unpersuasive denial” and too many people involved do not want the anti-doping system to work.

The Reference Shelf

First published July 22, 2016

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Tariq Panja in London at

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Grant Clark at