The Russian track and field team has been barred from competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro when it became apparent that many of its athletes were passing steroids around like eggnog at a Christmas party. The practice of using performance enhancers (sounds like something you'd put in your car, right?) was through a system of state-sponsored doping that many of us naively thought had died with the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
Not every Russian track and field athlete has used steroids, of course, but those who haven't will not get to compete in Rio short of competing without representing an actual country. Unified Team, anyone? No word yet on whether or not that's possible.
Steroid use is obviously more widespread that anyone realized, but it's getting more difficult to avoid detection. It took seven years to find out that American track star Marion Jones had drugged her way to the finish line at the 2000 Sydney Games; now, though, two of the eighteen medals won by Russian track and field athletes at the 2012 Olympics - four years after - have already been stripped, with more in possible jeopardy. There's the sense that a whole DSW outlet's worth of shoes could drop before this story plays out.
It turns out that the capacity for human deception, long thought wide, is in fact infinite. When athletes suspected of steroid use on the basis of sudden, miraculous improvement in their performances passed their drug tests, the accusers would suggest that the drug tests themselves were suspicious. Cheating a drug test? How on earth can you do that? You either have a steroid in your system, or you don't! But the cheaters have in fact found creative and somewhat jaw-dropping ways to cheat a drug test. Among them are putting soap in urine to destroy the steroid, inserting a container of clean urine in one's body, ejecting said urine with - I kid you not - a fake penis, fake tattoos that insert just enough of a steroidal compound into the blood stream to fail detection in a test, and also masking agents.
One famous example of use of a masking agent was documented on ProCon.org. After an Olympic swimmer from a country not known for producing swimming champions despite being entirely surrounded by water won three gold medals and a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics, it was found that this athlete had been "unavailable for out-of-competition drug tests from 1995 onward." Two drug testers arrived at this swimmer's home and received a urine sample, which was then sent to a laboratory in Spain to be examined. "The results were shocking," the item read. "The sample contained a level of alcohol that would be fatal if consumed by a human. FINA [the international governing body of swimming] concluded that the sample had been manipulated, [and] that whiskey had been added as a masking agent."
The swimmer was Ireland's Michelle Smith, whom I and several sportswriters believed back in 1996 when she said she had not used steroids.
You want to make the inevitable whiskey joke involving the Irish penchant for drinking, go right ahead, so long as I don't have to hear it. Yo, dig my surname!
Anyway, Smith has never been proven to have used steroids at the 1996 Olympics, as I have pointed out here before, but the tampering of her sample in 1998 only shows how easy it was even for a single athlete to hide drug use, with no coaxing or assistance from her government. I knew she tested positive for steroids two years after the Atlanta Games, but the evidence is even more damning than I realized. And I'm getting tired of revisiting the story.
As for the Russian case, credit goes to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for pursuing this and issuing the ban on the Russians. There's a bit of irony to this; the president of the IAAF is Sebastian Coe, the leader of the organizing committee for the 2012 London Olympics and the shining track star of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Back in 1980, the British Olympic team defied a request by Margaret Thatcher to join the idiotic U.S.-led boycott of the Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; now Coe has decided that the Russians can't go to Rio. I love Sebastian Coe; he's a man of integrity.
And though there's no evidence that Michelle Smith cheated at the 1996 Olympics - again, she tested negative for steroids during that competition - and so was never stripped of her Olympic medals, I have to concede that, when I believed twenty years ago that she didn't cheat (and it was probably ethnic pride more than anything else that caused me to believe so), I was most likely wrong.
I don't mind being wrong. Some of my best friends are wrong.