Russian athletes’ doping scandal has been overshadowed by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. They are not, however, unconnected. All Russian athletes are now facing Olympic suspension–and this means suspending Russia.
As a former Olympic athlete who represented an Eastern Bloc country in the days of Cold War boycotts, I remember how I felt when the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles were “boycotted” by Warsaw Pact countries and how we felt about the games in Soul. Our focus stayed on “local” competitions, Nationals, Europe, perhaps the World, if organized in a country which the Party did not view as a severe “flight risk.” It was not uncommon in those days that a bus of athletes going to compete in France or West Germany would return half empty, with four Secret Police Agents forced to explain what had happened…
Ancient Olympic Games had been held every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, Greece. They date as far back as 776 BC and the events (equestrian, athletic, wrestling, boxing and throws) celebrated and substituted for military ventures and achievements. Very likely, they commemorated and celebrated the conquest of Troy and the adventures described in Homer’s Iliad. During the games, all hostilities and wars were suspended and postponed – the idea passed down to us as the “Olympic Peace.”
Interestingly, Modern Olympic Games began as a celebration of Greek victory of independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. The conflict between the East and West is as old as civilization itself. Ever since Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894 – in Paris – the ideas of equality and fairness have stood out indelibly in every athlete’s mind. The Olympic Creed states that: “The most important thing” is “not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” This places the “struggle” on parallel to the metaphysical “journey” through life – the victory should not matter: “The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well,” said Baron de Coubertin.
However, you cannot fight well if you are not fighting to win. What is more, it is not just athletes who are fighting but the nations themselves. The Olympic Movement is a massive, expensive venture today with the opening ceremonies running to $100mil and companies investing (and making) billions on the Games. It is no wonder that the idea of “peace” has been substituted by the notion of the “journey” – because the content is hardly peaceful. It is a struggle at every step, personal, team-wise, national endeavor – and it never ends. The journey is thorny and the eyes are on the prize, not on the thorns. “Take what you have to, do what you must!” sounds more like a modern Olympic motto that National Teams’ coaches would use. They certainly did in my days…
Many of us are familiar with anabolic steroids, because they are the most frequent and also the most obvious of doping substances. Depending on the sport, however, there are many other agents, most notably stimulants, beta-blockers, and relaxing agents, such as marihuana and many medications considered therapeutic are on the prohibited WADA list. When you are an athlete competing in one of the many IOC recognized sports, you have to be on the lookout even when you are buying over-the-counter supplements and substances generally available to everybody (for instance, DHEA on your local Ralph’s shelves, is a substance whose positive blood/urine finding may result in the athlete’s being banned for life).
When I was on the Olympic Team, there were no protein, supplements and little was known about nutrition. We had vitamins and mineral drinks during workouts. While nutritional science and supplementation has advanced significantly, the recent news from Russia clearly shows that little has changed in terms of training “techniques” and structure: you must obey or you will be “terminated!” Only the coach knows what is good for you. Of course, in my “Olympic days” it was exacerbated by the fact that we lived in communism. There was no way you could say “no” to the comrade coach – they have the power over you and your family!
Communism is gone from the map, but you cannot erase it from the hearts and minds of the people. Putin will always have a KGB agent’s heart and an Olympic coach will always feel that he is the Comrade-in-Chief, the pastor to his pride. He is – if only because he is one of the “insiders,” that is to say those who have “ties” and can pull “strings” for you. The recent 350-page Pound/McLaren WADA Report reveals that there has been a “vast doping program,” athletes were injected by the “team” doctor (Sergei Portugalov) and the cover-up originated in the lab and athletes who wanted “out” were extorted (the marathon runner Shobukhova paid $520,000 to Russian officials for “clearance”).
From my own experience, I can tell you that there is no way that a coach of the Olympic Team would not know when WADA is testing and what is the likelihood of individual random tests at particular time of the year. Further, national WADA affiliates will usually contact the head coach or the lab first. It does not take that much (in terms of bribes or acquaintance) to establish “ties” to the lab and the national testing body. A whole “underground trade” develops, in which athletes are just pawns in the game, paying for their ignorance or negligence. At the end of the day, under the barrage of questions, the team doctor may tell you what you have just taken or been injected with, but, by then, it is usually too late.
Most athletes do not take performance enhancing substances willfully or even knowingly. There are those who are forced to turn a blind eye to what they take – or be ostracized and expelled – and there are those who make an honest mistake. You cannot judge unless you know the circumstances. Banning them all by a strike of the WADA pen, as has just happened is grossly unfair. Imagine you have been working out every day 4-6 hours for ten, fifteen years of your life and you have one, maybe two chances at the Olympics. You took what they gave you because you trusted the coach. Indeed, he has been the only person with genuine authority and interest in your advancement. Parents are far away – it is your team members and your coach who are your family now…
I recall that on average we swam 50-60 kilometers a week. Add several hours in the gym, plus running, basketball, football – twice a week. When you can think of something else, some goal in the future, some way of getting out, surviving “this” – you can “leave your body” and stop feeling the pain. It is not the best way to the Olympic podium, but it is often the only way to survive. There were people who did not – about one half “dropped out” during the first year, another one third in the second. Some could not handle the educational requirements and had to repeat the year (provided that you were a particularly successful athlete, of course, your study records could be overlooked – but such was rare). Our class was a mixture of older and younger athletes, 14-18 at any given time, from three different sports: track-and-field, gymnastics, and swimming.
It was very much like an army division – we all knew one another well, naked to the bone mentally as well as physically. When we traveled for competitions and meets we were constantly under supervision and stuck together – against every outsider. I imagine we looked weird to the people “on the outside” – if only because they looked “weird” to us. What is more, we were not permitted to go outside the permitted perimeter of the sleeping and workout facilities or speak with anyone, especially not about our training techniques or testing. Yes, we had our own team of doctors who would come to pierce our fingers for blood sampling (red and white blood count during exertion), urine tests, CO2 and oxygen consumption testing… you name it. The coach would know exactly what event our body was best suited for.
Very few of us knew what was in the pills we were given as “vitamins” during workouts, but they seemed to help. The bucketful of “ion drink” for the team was also a godsend, because workouts lasted for 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the evening. Once, I refused to take the pills. Everybody took them. I left mine on the bulkhead. Comrade Coach, the National Team Head Coach (whose favorite yell – till my ears popped – was “You’ll be here till I see you sweating blood!!!”) frowned and shouted at me that the State paid for these and I should realize how “privileged” I was, etc. etc. I learned to pull the One-Flew-over-the-Cuckoo’s-Nest stunt. Unlike others, I did not trust the 350-pound sadist who “broke” my knees (as he proudly stated – to teach me the proper breaststroke kick position) by forcing me to lie down prone on the floor bending my legs as he leaned on them and pushed on the inside of my ankles with all his weight…
The journey was hard and long. I took no shortcuts. Either you can do it – or not. There is no pill in the world will make you a world champion.
Listening to the news from Russia, I am not surprised. The demand and pressure must be even higher now: the “prestige” and renown are even greater and even more money is involved. Further, with globalization of the news and electronic mass media and the ability to instantly communicate not only the results but also techniques, methods, supplementation etc. athletes feel more empowered, more knowledgeable, perhaps, in some cases, manipulating the system. However, is such knowledge not a blindfold over what really matters?
Nutrition is better and legal supplementation is fabulous! We had had no protein powders, pre- and after-workout drinks filled with “aminos,” creatine, glutamine, carnitine… All we had was a thick slice of bread with lard for breakfast, fat soaked burgers for lunch and pancakes loaded with sugar for supper. Had they given us a Subway sandwich with all that good meat and veggies and a quart of milk a day – why, I may have won the Olympics.
After I left the Team, I encountered people (I cannot call them “athletes”) who used two or three oral steroids and two or three injectable ones. Other banned substances most commonly abused are stimulants and diuretics. Especially stimulants are becoming more problematic and WADA is considering banning coffee and caffeine drinks (Coke). Quite frankly, it amazes me when I stand in line in Subway how casually people guzzle down “energy drinks” as they nervously kick into the wall and yell on the phone… I split such a drink in two and use it as a pre-workout stimulant, not more than twice a week because the body gets used to everything and the effect decreases.
The list of banned substances is annually renewed and it is the athlete’s (not the coach’s responsibility to review it). The penalties are so severe and the stigma attached to any transgression so great that I cannot imagine any Olympic athlete would willfully take a banned substance. I was shocked when I saw Michael Phelps smoking marihuana. Not only is marihuana prohibited, but smoking anything is terrible for a swimmer who must rely on maximum lung capacity. It pains me even more because Michael was someone who I admired, from “my” sport.
Today, an Olympic athlete should be the ambassador of a healthy lifestyle, fighting against drug use and addiction which has ruined too many of our youth. After all, we athletes know about addiction perhaps more than anybody: is sport itself not an addiction above all others? I am addicted to the struggle, the everyday victory over myself. I want to taste the bitter with the sweet. If you cannot stand pain and all you think of is shortcuts, there is no room for you in sport. That is also why sport is the greatest character builder – and drugs the greatest character destroyer. I would not hesitate to invite to my home an Olympic athlete from any sport, no matter how briefly I knew them. Real athletes do not steal, rob or murder – or take drugs.
Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic Ideal is about the journey and how we athletes pave the way for the others to follow and reach: faster, higher, stronger. At some point in the athletic career, one will cease to represent just oneself. Young people and public at large (or simply our immediate friends and fans, however small the group may be) will look up to us as heroes, someone who fought and conquered – and it is our obligation to show them that it is not about the point of conquest but about the journey which took us there. We must have fought fair and square all the way, because otherwise both the journey and its goal are meaningless. It is the role of every athlete to preserve the dignity of their sport and the Olympic Ideal, which says that peace only comes to those who have fought well – fought in a square field with a like foe; fought to the best of their ability – no matter what the outcome of the fight may be.