SochiWhenever Sir Humphrey Appleby wanted an especially tricky issue kicking into the long grass on ‘Yes Minister’, he would propose an inquiry to put-upon Jim Hacker as a means of burying it – never a public inquiry, of course; it would always be an in-house affair chaired by someone purposely chosen to ensure a verdict that would absolve Hacker’s ministry of all responsibility. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this process when reading of Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban all Russian track and field athletes from the imminent Rio Olympics following claims of Russia’s state-sponsored performance-enhancing doping of its Olympians in a damning report by the World Anti-Doping Agency. After announcing all the named officials had been suspended pending an inquiry, Tsar Vladimir nominated an honorary Russian member of the IOC to head an anti-doping commission; Putin also apparently wants his nominee, Vitaly Smirnov, to make sure the stable doors are bolted now that the horses have buggered off.

‘The official position of the Russian authorities, the government and the president, all of us, is that there can be no place for doping in sport’ – those were the words of Vlad when confronted by the claims of his nation’s own former national anti-doping laboratory head, Grigory Rodchenkov, a man who is now on the Kremlin’s hit-list after his allegations appear to have been given credibility in the eyes of the IOC by the WADA report. Descriptions of how Russia assembled a veritable piss-bank of clean urine samples that were then ingeniously swapped with contaminated ones in an elaborate scam involving the Russian secret service, the FSB, are worthy of a Cold War spy novel.

These practices are alleged to have begun in earnest following demands for improvement after Russia’s low medal count at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. With Putin viewing the 2014 Winter Olympics, held in the Russian Black Sea coastal city of Sochi, as his very own ‘Berlin ‘36’ moment, he spent £37.7 billion to impress the watching world and obviously required a return on his investment via a vastly superior performance by the host nation’s athletes than they had managed four years previously. Positive drug tests miraculously vanished where Russian competitors were concerned and the country found itself top of the medal table by the end, boasting 33 in total, considerably up from the tally of 15 in Vancouver. Grigory Rodchenkov alleges a third of Russian medals awarded at the Sochi games were won courtesy of doping. According to the WADA report, 580 positive tests across 30 different disciplines were successfully suppressed for the four-year period the scam was in use.

It goes without saying that Russian athletes are hardly unique when it comes to enhancing their performances with illicit substances; but if what the WADA report claims is true, the scale and professionalism of the operation the Russian sports authorities evidently embarked upon before Sochi is unprecedented. Blaming it on a few isolated individuals would be akin to blaming Hack-Gate on a small handful of rogue reporters as opposed to the billion-dollar organisation that employed them. But should we really be surprised?

Throughout the Cold War, there was no shortage of suspicions regarding athletes from Iron Curtain countries whenever the wider world had the rare opportunity to see them in action during international competitions. Some of the female competitors were remarkably masculine, to say the least – often making Giant Haystacks resemble a passable Lynsey de Paul lookalike. Only when the Iron Curtain collapsed and countries such as the GDR ceased to exist did some of those competitors finally speak about the systematic abuse of their bodies by chemicals provided by the state, an abuse that was standard practice for decades. Is it any wonder that the kind of government Putin has established in Russia should revert to old-school Soviet tactics now that winning at the expense of fair play has become the be-all and end-all of a tournament too huge for its own good?

The increased pressures and demands on big name countries to triumph in sporting competitions is apparent with each one that comes around; even the BBC commentator midway through the dreary European Championships Final of a couple of weeks ago was moved to ask what the last exciting international football final the viewers could remember seeing actually was. I shouted at the telly ‘The 1986 World Cup Final – Argentina 3 West Germany 2!’ There have been seven World Cup Finals since then, and they’ve all been played by men who look terrified of putting a foot wrong for fear it will lead to their nation’s humiliation. And now they also have to contend with what social media will make of them.

Sporting records are set to be broken, but one wonders how much faster a human being can run, how much higher he can leap and how much further he can jump. Yes, intensive training programmes, developments in diet and a more educated awareness of what constitutes physical wellbeing have all played their part in the vast improvements that have been made in track and field over the past fifty years; but how much does the breaking of records owe to doping? How far are nations, let alone individuals, prepared to go? Ask Vlad.

© The Editor


  1. Whether Russia has been guilty of state-sponsored ‘doping’ to a greater or lesser degree than any other nations will probably remain unknown.
    But then, it all depends on what you mean by ‘doping’ – in practice, it is taken to mean ‘anything which is explicitly outlawed under current regulations’. So that means, if it’s not currently flagged as illicit, then you can do it. But is that fair ?

    I was discussing this a few years ago with a female athlete friend who had just emoted vociferously against ‘drug cheats’. I asked her if she was on the Pill and if she arranged her Pill-cycle to ensure that she never had a period at the same time as a major event. “Of course”, she replied, “that’s what everyone does”. That is not true, so she was gaining a performance advantage over some other competitors by the creative use of medications. That practice is quite ‘legal’ because it’s not specifically outlawed, but it’s still gaining an advantage: cheating in other words. Once this had been pointed out, she changed the subject.

    And that’s the problem, it’s never a black & white issue, it’s a grey-scale. For example, wealthy athletes can afford to relocate to places where long-term, high-altitude exposure will itself improve their metabolism, there’s no drugs involved, just fresh mountain air – but is that fair when poorer athletes can’t do that ?

    It is simply impossible to ensure a level playing-field in any athletic pursuits, so perhaps the authorities should now throw in the towel, declare it all ‘open’, merely advising all competitiors of any long-term risks they may face if they choose to use various substances. After that, it’s up to them, they’re adults – short-term glory, perhaps mega-paydays, then an old-age racked with after-effects (if they get that far), but it was their adult decision – and at least it didn’t help to start World War III.

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    1. I do wonder sometimes if it’s at all possible today to have such a thing as an ‘honest’ sport beyond amateur level, where the participants are largely doing it for the love of it. There seems to be so much at stake in every professional game that attracts huge audiences, so many vested interests and such great amounts of money for winning, that it almost appears impossible now.


      1. You’re right and I don’t believe it is possible.
        Maybe it’s time to reserve the title ‘sport’ for amateur-only contests, then we can recognise the rest as merely the ‘professional entertainment’ that it has become, no different from a TV soap-opera or an outdoor music concert.

        I used to compete in amateur motor-sport, with absolutely no cash-prizes or incentives on offer, indeed it was a negative cash-flow hobby – but it was purely about the ‘sport’, nothing else.
        Compare and contrast with the crass cash-circus that is Formula One, where Bernie Ecclestone writes the script at the start of each season and, if they all follow it, they all make money.

        Even my favoured spectator sport, Test Cricket, is now fatally compromised by cash considerations – enforcing the ‘follow-on’ hardly ever happens now, solely because they are conscious of the TV schedule/revenues and seat-sales, neither of which should ever have any bearing on the game itself, but they do now. They’ve even brought in the boundaries to increase the ‘spectacle’ of fours and sixes. Sad.

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      2. Yes, the way cricket has evolved to make it more palatable to TV audiences with short-attention spans is a good case in point. The defiantly sedate charm of a game that can span up to three or four days, a game that to the casual viewer often seemed to consist of long moments where nothing appeared to be happening at all, is so at odds with what constitutes accepted sporting ‘excitement’ that its radical eccentricities should really be cherished.


      3. If you need any more proof, check the score in today’s Second Test against Pakistan – an England first innings lead of 391 and they still won’t enforce the follow on, despite being almost twice the 200-run limit ! And that’s at Old Trafford, where the weather can waste hours in any one day, and usually does.
        They’re just trying to drag it out into the fifth day for all the seat, corporate and TV revenues.
        It’s all about the cash and nothing about the sport. A disgrace to the game.

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      4. The sad thing is that nobody will make that point within the media, as they all (to use an old saying) ‘piss in the same pot’. What an abysmal state of affairs.


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