Update – The Russian doping scandal
It’s usually only when Team GB wins something or someone from the world of track and field shoots their partner that athletics makes front-page news. As of Tuesday 10th November, we can add major, sport-shattering drug scandals to this very short shortlist.
Sure, incidents such as the Ben Johnson affair have snared mainstream coverage in the past. But there’s a big difference between a ridiculously muscle-bound Canadian been found to have traces of urine in his steroids and a major athletic power being accused of running a state-sponsored doping programming.
If the World Anti-Doping Agency’s new report is to be believed, Russia has not only implemented such a programme but has also conspired to cover-up laboratory results. What’s more, at the Sochi Winter Olympics, WADA believe their anti-doping process was infiltrated by agents from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, who acted to corrupt the programme.
And the allegations don’t stop there. And nor do they only concern the Russians. No, according to the Daily Mirror, “Doped Russian athletes were allowed to compete [in the London 2012 Olympics] due to a ‘collective and inexplicable laissez-faire policy’ adopted by the International Amateur Athletics Federation and [Russia’s] doping policy.
As the WADA report (below) has it, “The Olympic Games were sabotaged by the admission of athletes who should have not been competing and could have been prevented from competing.”
We could go on and on. However, as a site concerned first and foremost with gambling, it behoves us to look at how this foul-up affects our particular field. Perhaps the first thing to point up is that, in a world where you can bet on – almost – anything, William Hill are currently offering odds of 4/1 on Russia being excluded from the Rio Olympics; that’s down from 7/1 at the beginning of the week. Conversely, the bookmaker rates the chances of the Russians taking part in the first South American Olympiad at just 1/4.
Should a ban be imposed, it’ll have a considerable bearing upon how people bet on certain events. In the realm of athletics alone, Russia has a storeyed history in women’s track and field and an impressive record as far as men’s throwing events are concerned. But then there’s all the combat sports, weightlifting, gymnastics – put simply, few are the Olympic events that won’t be affected by the exclusion of Mother Russia.
But as recent events will have repercussions for the punting community so the doping scandal has thrown fresh light upon another, rather different species of gambler – that is to say, those athletes who are willing to take drugs to win in spite of the impact they could have not only upon their reputations but their very lives.
Again such creatures aren’t solely the province of track and field – stand up, Lance Armstrong – but athletics has attracted an overabundance of such characters. As seems to be the case with the current predicament, state programmes have frequently fuelled such behaviour. Take East Germany, a country with a population of just 16 million which nevertheless threatened the place in the medals table of far larger nations throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Talk of a steroids programme broke as early as 1976 but it wasn’t until after the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited that the extent and the toll of the programme became apparent.
For while they might have topped the medals table at the first and second World Athletics Championships in 1983 and 1987, the release of documents accumulated by the Stasi – the East German secret police – proved that that a steroids programme had been in effect since before 1977. That date is significant because it was during that year that shot-putter Ilona Slupianek tested positive for steroids during the European Cup. After that, the East German athletics authorities ensured that competitors were tested before they left the country to avoid further ‘embarrassments’.
And avoid them they did. When the Stasi files were opened, though, some truly extraordinary revelations flew out of them. Of particular interest was a letter in which the somewhat unfortunately named Marita Koch – whose abundant medal collection had long been eyed with suspicion – complained that she had been prescribed a lower dose of testosterone than fellow sprinter Barbel Wockel!
Of course, Koch and her cronies didn’t have a lot of choice in whether they participated in the East German doping programme. But what about those in the free world – people like the twice-banned Justin Gatlin(above)? What drives them to take such risks?
Certainly the money that’s now sloshing around international track and field must be an attraction. And in an age when shame doesn’t carry the weight it use to do – discus great Al Oerter once considered getting on ‘the juice’ but knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he did – a few months’ bad press seems a price many are willing to pay.
The thing is we’re not just talking about substances that can blacken your name. Performance-enhancing drugs – in particular but not exclusively steroids – kill people. Though no one would call it a sport, the world of professional wrestling is too familiar with the story of the thirty- or forty-something guy who dies of heart disease brought on by long-term steroid use.
Now, since steroids themselves tend not to kill people directly, it’s hard to draw a direct correlation between the drug and the cause of death. Go back to the East German athletes on the ’70s and ’80s, however, and you’ll find all manner of people now in their fifties suffering from ailments rarely found in anyone but geriatrics.
Which brings us back to betting, since with the stakes raised to such an extent that IAAF chief Seb Coe finds himself over a barrel due to his relationship with the Gatlin-sponsoring Nike, it’s clear that there’s a form gambling going on at the moment that’s far removed from that which the average punter would understand. For it is a place where people are willing to pay with their lives for a slice of sporting immortality.
It is if you will, a new slow-motion version of Russian roulette, only this variation involves a starter’s pistol.
Update – A year on from the publication of this piece, athletes from former Soviet states are continuing to receive retrospective bans for drug offences. On Monday 21st November, the BBC announced that a dozen athletes have failed retroactive tests including London 2012 3,000m steeplechase gold medallist Yuliya Zaripova (main picture).
Following the retesting of samples taken at the London games, the following comeptitors have also received bans and/or suspensions:
Andrey Demanov (Russia, weightlifting), Oleksandr Drygol (Ukraine, track and field, hammer), Cristina Iovu* (Moldova, weightlifting), Alexandr Ivanov* (Russia, weightlifting), Hripsime Khurshudyan* (Armenia, weightlifting), Iryna Kulesha* (Belarus, weightlifting), Rauli Tsirekidze (Georgia, weightlifting), Margaryta Tverdokhlib (Ukraine, track and field, long jump), Almas Uteshov (Kazakhstan, weightlifting), Nataliya Zabolotnaya* (Russia, weightlifting), Anatoli Ciricu* (Moldova, weightlifting).
* – London 2012 medallist.