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Russian Spies, Drug Tests, and the Olympics

The first time the anti-doping officials knock on your door at dawn it feels like an honor. Long before the realization sets in that some athletes’ drug tests matter more than others, that feeling of honor quickly turns to burden. The way the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code is written, the burden is entirely on the athlete
Athletes are responsible for whatever is in their bodies.
Athletes are responsible for whatever is in their bodies. Suppose I am taking a multivitamin that was produced on poorly cleaned equipment, and suppose an anabolic steroid is one of the other “supplements” produced on that equipment. The residue on the equipment is enough to put trace amounts of steroid in my body, and that is enough to cause a positive test. As an athlete, I’m responsible, even though it’s not my job to ensure that the equipment is clean. 
 
Athletes in the testing pool—those who can be randomly tested anywhere, anytime—are required to submit three months’ worth of location information, including specific addresses for everywhere they will be for every single minute of time in those three months. If a doping control officer tries to make contact at a location I’ve provided and I am not there, I have 60 minutes to get there. Take more than an hour to show up, I am dinged for a “missed test.” Accrue three missed tests, and I am sanctioned. 
 
As a cyclist whose weather-dependent training rides frequently took me into wooded canyons with spotty cell phone service, I found submitting location data particularly onerous. Every November, I was supposed to tell the anti-doping agency what time I would be out for my 3.5-hour training ride, say, on Feb. 28?! 
The athlete’s sole consolation is that this system keeps spot clean. The burden is worth it because we will not have to compete against someone who is cheating, or so the theory goes.
The athlete’s sole consolation is that this system keeps spot clean. The burden is worth it because we will not have to compete against someone who is cheating, or so the theory goes. It’s upsetting when you suspect a competitor of cheating, and even worse when you learn that powerful people in the sport are complicit in covering up widespread doping among the news-makers. Meanwhile, you were toiling away on the less-well-known rungs of the sport, spending hours logging whereabouts data, and having your privacy violated at 6 a.m. by a total stranger with a flimsy credential and a branded polo-shirt. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) drilled it into our heads, the worst thing that could happen is for us to have a “false positive,” and be banned from competition for two-years. 
 
Just recently, news broke that Russia has been using secret government operatives to systematically cheat. Suddenly the threat of false positive pales in the realization that hundreds or maybe even thousands of athletes’ samples have been false negatives. In light of this, should Russia be banned from sending its athletes to the Olympics this summer? Probably. Any success by their athletes will—rightly or not—be viewed as tainted. How can the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ensure fair competition to the thousands of Olympians from other nations if they allow the Russians to compete?
 
Having met several Americans who made the Olympic team in 1980 who were deprived of their hard-won opportunity to compete at Olympics for reasons that had nothing to do with them; the question of whether to ban Russians from competition becomes murkier. 
 
If the IOC bans Russian athletes from the Rio Games are they punishing the right people? Did the athletes really drive the process of cheating? What if the athletes who were cheating didn’t have a choice? In the U.S., it’s easy to scold dopers: “Shame on them, they made a choice, they can pay the price.” But in countries where people have less freedom to speak their minds, fewer opportunities to make a living, and limited choices about what they DO with their lives, it’s easy to imagine that an athlete doesn’t have a real choice. 
 
Is it possible for the IOC to punish Russia without punishing innocent or powerless athletes? Not really. The last thing the Olympic movement needs is for fans, athletes, and coaches alike to further question the integrity of the Games. The Russians clearly can’t be trusted to uphold the WADA code, and no other nation has the jurisdiction to do it for them. The clean Russian athletes – if there are any – will be held responsible, right along with those who are doping.
Athletics, Ethics, Global
health,Illuminate

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