Doping scandal breaks over Winter Olympics

Lost crown: Russia topped the medal table at their own Winter Olympics in 2014.

Will sport ever be drug free? The Winter Olympic Games start on Friday in South Korea, but a fresh doping scandal has exploded on their eve. Trust in sport is at an all-time low.

The build-up to the 23rd Winter Olympics has been dominated by the feel-good story of rapprochement between North and South Korea. But with just four days to go until the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, an all-too-familiar story has taken over the headlines: doping.

Secret data obtained by The Sunday Times and the German broadcaster ARD has uncovered the enormous extent of blood doping by long-distance skiers due to compete in the upcoming games.

Hundreds have avoided bans despite absurdly unusual blood test scores. Some skiers’ blood was so dangerously thick that a doctor should have recommended a trip to hospital rather than to compete at the games.

The data shows that, since 2001, a third of all skiing medals, including 91 golds, have been won in the Olympics and world championships by competitors who have recorded suspicious tests.

All this comes on top of the extraordinary scandal involving Russia at the 2014 games which it hosted in Sochi. The mass doping, which was described as an “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympics", resulted in Russia being banned from this year’s games.

And yet, 169 Russians will still compete in Pyeongchang as neutrals. They will be known as “Olympic athletes from Russia”. If they win a medal, the Olympic anthem, rather than the Russian one, will be played.

The athletes are also expected to "refrain from any public form of publicity, activity and communication associated with the national flag, anthem, emblem and symbols" at any Olympic site.

Although all have been cleared of doping, trust in the International Olympics Committee is so low that a cloud of suspicion will hang over any Russian medal winners.

2017 was defined by a succession of doping scandals, in cycling, athletics, tennis and winter sports. A survey of 2,000 people in Britain in July found one third believe their trust in the sport industry declined over the previous 12 months.

The prizes for sporting victory are greater than ever before. Is doping now a complete inevitability?

Uneven playing field

Doctors and dopers will always be one step ahead of the authorities, say some. And in sports like skiing, which are purely about physicality, rather than tactics or teamwork, the rewards from doping still sadly outweigh the consequences. Even more depressingly, much of the doping has support from the top. It will never go away.

There is room for optimism, reply others. Public tolerance of doping is extremely low. If people can no longer trust that what they watch is legitimate, they will switch off. If they switch off, sport will lose money, and so the incentives to cheat would become smaller. Eventually people will say: “Enough is enough.”

You Decide

  1. Will you trust what you see at the Winter Olympics?
  2. Is doping an inevitable part of professional sport?

Activities

  1. Split into pairs. List factors which give people an advantage in sport (for example, height). Discuss which advantages are fair, and which are unfair.
  2. Design a poster encouraging athletes to resist the temptation to dope.

Some People Say...

“If you're not cheating, you're not trying.”

Eddie Guerrero

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A new doping scandal has hit the headlines just days before the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics. Huge numbers of long-distance skiers have been found to have given abnormal blood tests. All this adds to the sense that the Olympics have become permanently compromised by doping and cheating. We know that doping is particularly widespread in individual sports, which is why the Olympics are so badly hit.
What do we not know?
Whether doping will always be a feature of sport. Some believe we should start looking at ways to incorporate performance-enhancing drugs into sport, rather than fighting a seemingly never-ending battle to eradicate them. We also do not know whether this year’s Olympics will be as drug-ridden as Sochi 2014.

Word Watch

North and South Korea
Yesterday the joint North and South Korean women's ice hockey team played their first match - a defeat to Sweden. The controversial decision to have joint ice hockey teams comes at a time of heightened tensions over the North's nuclear ambitions, following a series of missile tests designed to demonstrate its nuclear capability.
Long-distance skiers
There are 14 cross country skiing events in this Olympics, seven for men and seven for women. The longest race is 50km.
Thick
Blood doping is the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream. Because red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, a higher concentration can improve an athlete’s ability and endurance.
169 Russians
This will make them the third biggest team at this year’s games, behind only Canada and the USA.
They will switch off
For example, widespread match-fixing and doping was devastating for several football leagues in south-east Asia in the 1990s, as it drove crowds away.

Subjects

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