Every Olympics seems to bring with it a doping scandal, and the Rio games are no different. Well before Friday’s opening ceremonies, state-sponsored doping in Russia, widespread doping on the Chinese swim team, and questions about a Rio drug-testing lab have renewed worries about whether a “clean” Olympics will ever be possible.
It might be tempting to throw up one’s hands and see these revelations as nothing more than the latest in a series of sordid stories about athletes seeking an edge. After all, pro sports from cycling to baseball are rife with similar tales of performance-enhancing substances. But the recent Olympic doping scandals are symptomatic of something more significant: the return of semi-rogue countries determined to bypass international norms and conventions in a systematic way not seen since the cold war.
Of course, the Olympic Games have long been a proxy for national glory. Over the past decades, countries from Australia to united Germany have poured money into sports to improve their rankings on medal tables. But what we are seeing now is rules-twisting by national governments that mirrors a broader turn toward flouting international law. Just as Russia annexes neighboring countries or China occupies disputed reefs in the South China Sea, their sports programs try to game the international system to national advantage.
Attention has focused most on Russia, probably because its aspirations are so far out of whack with its actual capabilities. Putin has done a masterful job of papering over Russia’s relative global decline: reinvading countries Russia once controlled, pouring money into its weakened military, or engaging in international adventures like in Syria. But at heart, Russia is a fairly poor country with only the legacy trappings of a major power: nuclear weapons, a big army, and a large landmass. What it lacks is a dynamic economy and the sort of widespread prosperity that can allow sporting prowess to percolate up from the bottom.
Under Putin, these weaknesses in sports have been masked by significant investment to rebuild the old Soviet sports machine. The results are real, with complexes refurbished, coaches hired, and athletes given stipends. But just like in the Soviet days, today’s Russia wants to dominate the medal tables. Enter doping. According to Russian whistleblowers interviewed by The New York Times, Russia’s intelligence services came up with a cloak-and-dagger method at the 2014 Sochi winter games of doctoring athletes’ urine samples. The bottles of Russian team members who were taking performance enhancing drugs were passed through holes in the wall to agents who jiggered open the special seals, allowing Russian scientists to refill them with clean urine samples. Up to a third of Russian medalists were allegedly part of this program.
Like Russia, China aspires to greatness and also wants all the trappings of a superpower—space exploration, a say in how the Arctic and Antarctic are run, control and militarization of offshore territories (or even construction of artificial islands) based on flimsy historical precedent. Olympic dominance is part of this old-fashioned vision of national greatness. But China, with its huge population and rapid economic growth, is in a much stronger position than Russia and so its efforts to manipulate the system are not as crude.
This has allowed China to achieve great success through legal—if somewhat unsportsmanlike—methods. While other countries invest significant amounts in national sports programs, the Chinese government pours huge amounts of money into what is essentially a Manhattan Project-like sports machine. Its overriding aim is to create national glory for a government that has made nationalism one of its pillars of support. So colossal sums of money have been spent on marginal sports with high rates of medal returns, while potential national team members are selected and rigorously trained from a very early age. All this makes doping less important; it is only one of a number of methods that might bring the country’s athletes to the very top of world sports. Yet my guess is that it is still widely practiced—but just more carefully and as a last resort.
For example, it’s unlikely that Chinese badminton or ping-pong players systematically dope. Why would they need to, since few countries play these sports as enthusiastically as China does? This means the country has a natural advantage in these sports and its gold medals are probably legitimate.
But the story is probably different in globally competitive sports like swimming. Without whistleblowers to provide a clear picture, one can only draw conclusions based on patterns of behavior, but recent reports have raised many questions. One is the practice of seclusion—where athletes do not appear at international tournaments in the lead-up to major competitions like the Olympics so they can avoid testing. Doping experts suggest that this allows athletes to dope during training—which is mostly how drugs are used—and have the material flushed out of their system by the time of the competitions. And when athletes are caught, they are given light sentences by Chinese authorities. This was the case for China’s best-known swimmer, Sun Yang, who was given a three-month suspension instead of the traditional two-year ban, with the suspension suspiciously taking place before the violation was made public.
This does not seem to be an isolated case. Earlier this year, for example, The Times of London reported that Chinese swimmers had tested positive for doping, prompting Chinese officials to admit to the problem. This comes after a history of crude, Russian-style doping in the 1990s, when many Chinese swimmers (and other athletes) were caught cheating at international events.
Former Chinese whistleblowers also believe that systematic doping is still practiced. Among them is Xue Yinxian, a seventy-eight-year-old former medical doctor in the government sports administration. In interviews, she says she refused to dope in the 1980s and therefore was kicked out of the China’s national sports system. In the decades since then, she has been treated like a top-level dissident—prevented from traveling and harassed by authorities.
In a recent interview with Britain’s ITV, Mrs. Xue describes how she was prevented from leaving Beijing last summer to go to Hong Kong—presumably because China was bidding on the 2022 winter games and was afraid she would give interviews alleging doping and other irregularities. In 2007, before the Beijing games, she was also put under house arrest, and her ill husband died after confronting authorities who were berating her in the family’s living room. Mrs. Xue’s information is obviously old, but given that sports is still run by the same government bureaucracy, it’s unlikely that the willingness to cheat has changed—it’s just probably easier for China to avoid doing so now because it has invested so much money over the past few decades.
One shouldn’t pick on Russia and China. Smaller countries are also eager to make a splash at the Olympics. Countries can win huge prestige from even a single gold medal in a high-profile event, while the athletes involved can win unimagined riches through sponsorships after the games are over. Although it might not be on the same level as Russia or China, countries like Ethiopia and Kenya clearly have serious problems. These fit the pattern of nations that want to do well in the games, and may be building a reputation in particular sports, but lack the money to set up a real sporting machine. For these countries and their athletes, doping is a quick fix.
At heart, the problem is how we enforce global rules. Doping became rampant during the cold war, when the big Communist sports machines churned out gold medals. Some Western athletes and coaches participated too, most famously perhaps the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson and the Americans Justin Gatlin and Marion Jones, but these were individual cases, not national programs. Attempts to address the problem began in the 1980s and gained steam with the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999.
But these efforts rely on the good faith of national governments themselves—the idea that countries will not torque the system to prevent inspections or random tests, or even that national doping labs will conform to international standards. Unfortunately, a significant number of countries do not believe in this. To them, these rules are simply conventions—niceties that have only significance in the realm of public relations. To countries like China and Russia, the international system—of treaties, and obligations, and rules—was set up by the West to further its aims, and can be bypassed when necessary.
Many individual Chinese and Russians believe in the principles of clean international competition. People like the Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov or Mrs. Xue from the Chinese sports administration understand the value of international rules and ideals. But they are trapped in political systems that are only interested in power and glory.
Ian Johnson reports from Beijing and Berlin. He is writing a book on China’s beliefs and values. (April 2016).