Elite Athletes and Doping – An International Problem with Geopolitical Roots

While military conflict steals the headlines, a nation’s soft power assets often wield as much geopolitical heft at a fraction the cost in blood and treasure – this idea is outlined in this ALEC video. John F. Kennedy advanced the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 because of his conviction that international commerce could serve as an economic weapon to shore up alliances and win the Cold War. In the last days of 2004, George W. Bush deployed US Naval vessels to Indonesia to offer aid after a devastating tsunami that killed more than a quarter million people. The US Navy saved lives, however, polls indicate this humanitarian mission also reduced Indonesian opposition to America’s efforts to combat terrorism from 72% in 2003 to 36% in 2005! In the decades following World War II, the USSR also saw the value in maximizing their soft power assets – providing university educations to people in the developing world, for example. Most famously, however, soft power battles between the US and the Soviet Union took place at international athletic competitions. During the Cold War, sport took on geopolitical overtones.

The closing ceremonies for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo were scheduled to take place last month, prompting reflection on Olympics past. The 1980  “Miracle on Ice” is one of the most well-known wins in Olympic history. It was not just a victory for the U.S. hockey team but also symbolized American triumph over communism. The Russian loss became a symbol for the USSR’s decay suggesting that if the US could best the Soviets in the ice rink, they could also win the Cold War. By the end of the decade, the Berlin Wall would come down. See ALEC model policy to establish a Victims of Communism Memorial Day.

The Games have held political significance since ancient Greece, but international competitions became particularly important during the Cold War, providing a non-military sparring platform for the United States and the USSR. Even then, competitions were tainted by the use of performance enhancing drugs through team doping programs, conferring on Soviet and East German athletes in particular almost insurmountable athletic advantages. Although Soviet doping scandals shined a spotlight on illicit drug use, the problem has continued to grow.

The World Anti-Doping Agency bans drugs that enhance performance and harm athlete health deeming them contrary to the spirit of sport. Illegal substances have been compiled into a list since the 1960s. There are also several banned doping methods which include manipulating chemical or physical aspects of blood, blood components, genes or cells. Some substances like erythropoietin are difficult to detect, so athletes are given thresholds under which to remain. Athletes dope as close to the maximum level allowed to enhance performance and test negative.

The international sporting community was rocked by Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal in 2012. Following investigation, he was stripped of seven Tour de France titles and an Olympic bronze medal from 2000. There have been 418 cases of doping at the Olympics from 1968-2018 with the most cases in the 2012 London Games, where 121 total athletes tested positive for banned substances. When retesting athletes’ samples from 2012, an additional 106 athletes tested positive. Two years later, a 2014 German documentary claimed that 99% of Russian athletes used performance enhancing drugs and methods during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Russian doping at the Sochi Olympics came to light when a 2015 WADA report discovered mass doping in Russian athletes who competed in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov openly admitted to replacing the samples with clean ones, allowing Russian athletes to compete while using banned substances. Russian dominance in the Sochi Games also corresponded to the international recognition of Russia as a real threat, elevating its status in global politics. In 2019, WADA banned Russia from international competitions for four years – the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 World Cup –  because of widespread illegal drug use. Russia still tries to portray itself as a superior country built on natural talent, however, the truth is becoming increasingly clear.

Countries engage in soft power conflict using economic might, messaging campaigns and athletic competition. It is not a coincidence that Russia, emboldened after hosting triumphal Olympic Games in Sochi, invaded Crimea three days later. Additionally, as of 2018, the U.S. holds 1,022 gold medals and 2,520 medals overall, the most of any country. Not coincidentally, the United States is also dominant geopolitically. Winning, doping, and politics are interrelated, and sports have real repercussions in international relations.

Anti-doping agencies are slowly creating better tests while athletes are quickly crafting superior ways to circumvent the system. Measures must be taken to protect athletes’ safety to ensure clean training programs and improve tests that detect banned substances and methods.  Doping is a serious issue in sports at the national and international levels, threatening athletes’ health and the spirit of the games. Countries should provide a framework to keep athletes clean, rather than endorsing, supporting, or hiding doping programs. As we end the month that would have celebrated the final days of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, it is a good time to reflect on international competition and reimagine a new future for it that does not include illicit performance enhancing drugs.