Sports were much simpler before modern medicine and what one academic study calls a century-long "doping pandemic of huge proportions."
Exhibit A: The whistleblower revelations last week of a truly breathtaking scheme allegedly involving Russian athletes, government officials and the intelligence apparatus. The country's track and field federation was suspended from international competition last fall amid similar allegations.
Pointed questions are being asked about whether Russia should be excluded from next summer's Rio Olympics. The answer is yes – although it would be unfair to ban the entire delegation; archers and sailors shouldn't be punished for their government's sins in other sports (unless track team chemists have also been doctoring arrows and spinnakers).
Unfortunately, Russia's example of widespread, state-approved cheating is only unique in terms of hubris and, maybe, scale. Few countries are above reproach, and the World Anti-Doping Agency's task often appears to be Sisyphean.
Former Chinese athletes alleged state-sponsored doping earlier this year. A former anti-doping official in Jamaica exposed chronically lax testing in 2013. Ethiopia was recently told to test 200 of its athletes, or else. Kenya, long a dominant power in distance running, may lead the world in positive samples – more than 40 since 2011 – and was judged "non-compliant" by WADA last week.
And last year, leaked International Amateur Athletic Federation documents indicated a third of all medalists in endurance events at Olympic and World Championship meets from 2001-12 returned "suspicious" blood work. Weeks later, the body's former president was charged with taking bribes to cover up test results.
When WADA reported on Russia's doping problem last fall, its Canadian founding president, Richard Pound, said meaningful action is needed lest the world "move towards the opinion that all sport is corrupt."
It might be too late. With national prestige on the line and enormous rewards to winners, countries and individuals have powerful incentives to cheat. Stiff sanctions against those who are caught may be the best weapon, but they have rarely been used. Kenya's runners are expected in Rio.