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The Olympic War on Drugs

The ban on performance-enhancing drugs is fueled by moral panic, not medicine.

With the Rio Olympic Games just days away, the entire Russian team looks set to be banned from competing. An inquiry by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren has found Russia guilty of systematic cheating of drug-testing procedures.

McLaren’s report was commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA), an unelected, unaccountable body formed at the initiative of the equally unelected, unaccountable International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Yet despite unanimous media endorsement, McLaren’s case would not stand up in a court of law. It relies solely on the evidence of Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, former head of Moscow’s drug-testing laboratory and now a resident of Los Angeles, together with what the report vaguely calls “other witnesses who came forward on a confidential basis.” It did not interview anyone in Russia because, as McLaren argued, “it was simply not practical and I deemed such interviewing would not be helpful.”

True or not, Russia would not be the first nation to ignore the IOC’s drug-testing procedures. In the run-up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics at least thirty-four American athletes tested positive or had possible positive “doping” results but were allowed to compete. At the 1984 Games themselves, nine athletes who tested positive were not penalized.

Carl Lewis, the golden boy of US athletics in the 1980s and 1990s, failed three tests during the 1988 US Olympic trials, yet still picked up the Olympic gold medal one hundred meters after Ben Johnson had been stripped of it for failing a drug test in the Olympic final. In fact, between 1988 and 2000, 114 positive drugs tests were ignored by the US Olympic Committee, yet the country suffered no sanctions.

The Americans were not the only ones. During the 1980s the Italian Athletics Federation was so keen on giving their athletes anabolic steroids that it made them sign legal waivers that stated they were fully aware of the medical risks.

But the ban on Russian athletes is not merely hypocrisy. It is part of a broader propaganda war by the West against Russia. Moreover, from a historical perspective, the ban continues an anti-drug morality campaign that began in the Cold War and has become central to the IOC’s dominance of world sport.

Cold War Drugs

Drugs have always been part of sport, used by athletes to help them train, compete, and heal. Pharmacological potions were used by athletes in the ancient Greek Olympics. In the nineteenth century athletes in endurance sports like cycling and long-distance running regularly used drugs.

Athletic drug use was part of a society-wide drug habit — at least until the 1920s when opium, heroin and other opiates were banned from sale to the general public. Indeed, Coca-Cola, now a major corporate sponsor of the Olympics, was originally based on a cocktail of cocaine and caffeine.

Nor did the IOC always oppose drugs, as can be seen in the official report of the 1904 Olympic Games:

The Marathon race, from a medical standpoint, demonstrated that drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road . . . As [the eventual winner Thomas] Hicks passed the twenty-mile post, his color began to become ashen pale, and then another tablet of one-sixtieth grain strychnine was administered him, and two more eggs, besides a sip of brandy.

The use of drugs in sport became a major issue during the Cold War. Following the Soviet bloc’s stunning success at the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games, Western fears about a growing “muscle gap” between East and West began to focus on the use of drugs by Soviet athletes.

US Cold War propaganda insisted that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian society that vigorously suppressed individual talent and initiative, so sporting Cold Warriors claimed that Soviet athletes must be using “performance-enhancing” drugs. But, of course, both Soviet and American athletes were experimenting with drugs throughout this period when drugs were still legal and viewed as legitimate sports science.

“Clean” Sport

Despite modern moral panics about drugs, there are no substantive scientific studies into the long-term athletic use of drugs because the IOC and other sporting bodies will not allow serious research. Sports administrators often point to the damaging physical and psychological effects of drugs like anabolic steroids, but of course the long-term use of any type of pharmaceutical without medical supervision or quality control, as occurs in sport, would also lead to serious health problems.

Many high-school and college athletes are coerced into taking drugs by coaching staff, but this is a consequence of the abusive culture of coaching that exists in many sports, a culture that also leads to widespread bullying and sexual abuse. Such abusive coaches are empowered by the fact that anti-drug rules prevent young athletes from seeking medical intervention.

As in all other walks of life, proper medical supervision of the use of drugs can be beneficial to athletes. We know that drugs such as anabolic steroids can enable athletes to train for longer and recover from injury more quickly. And contrary to the idea that athletes who take drugs are cheats who want to cut corners, the athlete still has to train at the limits of human physical endurance to benefit.

More importantly, so-called “clean” sport is not necessarily the healthy lifestyle choice that anti-drugs campaigners claim. Researchers in 2006 discovered that NFL linemen had a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population. They also found that 56 percent of all active NFL players were medically obese. The incidence of head trauma leading to depression, early-onset Alzheimer’s, and other serious medical issues in football and rugby is also well-documented.

A 2009 study showed that even healthy marathon runners had high rates of coronary heart disease. Nearly half of ex-soccer players in their fifties surveyed in the United Kingdom in 2000 had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, a rate two-and-a-half times that of the general population. High-jumpers, javelin-throwers, and handball players have all recorded above-average rates too.

And, of course, a blanket ban on drugs greatly increases the chances of unforeseen health complications due to the lack of medical advice for those who do take them. Any drug that is taken for a long period of time without medical supervision or guidance has deleterious side effects, not just anabolic steroids.

Instead of writing off performance-enhancing drugs as the domain of liars and cheats, we should reconsider their purpose in the sporting world — the pharmacological equivalent of the sophisticated scientific training expertise such as customized running shoes, high-altitude training camps, and hyperbaric chambers, all of which are available to the richest elite athletes. Medicine should guide athletes’ use of pharmacology, not morality.

But sporting organizations like the IOC reject medical science in favor of their own moral certainties. The campaign against drugs in sport is not a debate about health, but an attempt to define and command the moral high ground by self-appointed sports administrators.


Sport as we know it today emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century, based on the “Muscular Christian” morality of “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” It was an ideology aimed exclusively at young males, designed to purge them of the moral impurities of sex, effeminacy, and homosexuality, and teach them how to be the rulers of the emerging imperialist nations. Sport created a binary world of the pure and the dirty.

By giving sport a moral purpose, its leaders sought to raise the status of games above what they had always previously been — entertainment, thrilling and spectacular, but nothing more than simple entertainment. One of those leaders was the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who in 1894 created the modern Olympic Games as the international showcase for this new athletic philosophy.

To justify its belief in its own moral mission, sport needed a villain against which to measure its superiority over other forms of entertainment. So, just as the so-called “drug cheat” is public enemy number one in twenty-first-century sport, for Coubertin and his fellow thinkers the enemy was the “veiled professional” working-class athlete whom they saw as corrupting their values of amateurism. Later, in the Cold War, the “other” was the Soviet bloc “shamateur” or the mythical female shot-putters who were “really” men.

Indeed, the war on drugs is closely connected to the obsessive concern of sports organizations in policing their arbitrary boundary between male and female. So-called sex-testing became widespread in the 1960s alongside drug-testing as women athletes became stronger and quicker, defying the traditional stereotypes that are embedded in sport culture. As female athletes such as Dutee Chand and Caster Semenya have painfully discovered over the past few years, women who do not conform to the stereotype are quickly labelled as cheats or worse.

The war on drugs has imposed a totalitarian regime of rigid control and discipline on athletes. In 2004 WADA introduced its “whereabouts” system that effectively turned elite athletes into prisoners on parole. Athletes had to nominate one hour per day, seven days a week, to be available for unannounced drug testing. Being somewhere else, failure to complete the paperwork, or providing incorrect details were punishable offences.

At the 2012 London Olympics cleaning staff and security guards working in the athletes’ village were “educated” to spy on competitors for “behavior that is untoward” and report it to the IOC. These unapologetic police-state measures were justified as being necessary to stop so-called cheats.

The long arm of Big Brother stretches into the past too, as Maria Sharapova recently discovered when she was barred from professional tennis for taking medication that was previously allowed but then arbitrarily banned by WADA. The IOC is now also retrospectively retesting athletes who passed drug tests in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, a clear violation of the legal principle of double jeopardy.

Many leftist and liberal commentators have rightly highlighted the social devastation wrought by the Olympics on the host cities it imposes itself upon. But the problem with the Olympics, and sport as a whole, go much deeper. Sport governing bodies like the IOC seek to impose a reactionary morality on athletes based on arbitrary definitions of cheating, gender, and social conformity that is enforced by police-state methods. This is what today’s “war on drug cheats” represents.