There are still a few spots open on the Olympic Bingo Card: Disaster Edition. On Saturday, they filled another.
For the first time during these Games, a high-profile competitor failed a drug test. In this case, it was Nigerian sprinter and long jumper, Blessing Okagbare.
Okagbare was en route to the women’s 100-metre semi-final on Saturday when it was announced she’d failed a doping test done a couple of weeks ago. In this case, human growth hormone. It’s not like you can blame that one on a burrito.
Okagbare was a medalist back in Beijing in 2008, a sporadic podium hopeful since and a track lifer.
She made news recently, hitting out at her own national federation because several Nigerians were pre-emptively banned after insufficient drug testing. This may be what Freud called projection.
One of the small mercies of these Games was that doping wasn’t a front-and-centre topic off the top. But it has been sneaking up gradually, and now suddenly.
On Friday, the men’s 200-metre backstroke was won by a Russian, Evgeny Rylov. It was his second gold of the Games.
American silver medalist Ryan Murphy said he was dismayed to have been in a final “that’s probably not clean.”
“It’s frustrating knowing there’s a state-sponsored doping program going on and not more being done to tackle that,” added British third-place finisher Luke Greenbank.
Russia responded on social media with a few lines that felt like Dostoevsky channeled through Deep Purple, circa Machine Head.
“English propaganda is oozing verbal sweat onto the Tokyo Games,” its official statement read, in part. “We will not console you. We’ll forgive those who are weaker. God is their judge. He is our helper.”
Put that over a heavy guitar lick and I think you’ve got a winner in Vladivostok.
God love the Russians. Having been given a set of rules absent any serious enforcement mechanism, they are running wild. They’re like a dog chasing a car. They’re not even sure what they’re trying to accomplish.
The larger problem is a complete lack of faith in testing. It’s difficult under the best of circumstances because, technologically, the cheaters are always ahead of the enforcers.
Now the pandemic has considerably worsened the problem. With limited ability to travel and new excuses for athletes to avoid co-operating, testing dropped by nearly half in 2020.
If you’ve always wondered what it would be like to bench press a refrigerator and operate heavy machinery for a living, 2020 was your year to do it.
That lack has created an atmosphere of suppressed tension here in Japan.
In the early going at the pool, Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui came out of absolute nowhere to win the 400-m freestyle. Until the last race, Hafnaoui, 18, wasn’t even having a particularly great meet. He started the final in Lane 8.
Hafnaoui’s win was a charming early headline splashed all over the world.
A widely tipped Australian placed second. In his victory presser, Hafnaoui was gently, but repeatedly, pressed by a series of Aussie journalists to explain how he’d done it. You probably didn’t read a lot about that grilling in the reporting of the story.
Nobody said the word “doping,” but it hung over every question. For instance, “You came eighth at the Olympic Youth Games in 2018, and you just won the real Olympics. How do you explain that?”
Hafnaoui was either too shocked, too excited or too smart to pick up on the inference. His answer: “Hard work.”
It is tempting to believe that when the world went into lockdown, that instead of starting a screenplay, some athletes decided to make a masterpiece of their physical conditioning.
There is romance in the idea of the lone striver putting in the work for a solid year-and-a-half until he or she has outstripped the competition. But in secret. It’s a staple montage of Rocky movies.
Then they show up at the next big event and shock everyone. Cue credits.
It’s also possible some people decided to do a bunch of drugs, gambling that no World Anti-Doping Agency tester was dedicated enough to swim to their country to get a urine sample.
It says something about the state of drug testing at the most elite level that no athlete believes in any winner unless they already have a long history of top performance. The bolt-from-the-blue performance may be a staple of good broadcasts, but it elicits little genuine joy on the ground. Only suspicion.
We are now entering what is traditionally the doping portion of an Olympic Games – track and field.
It kicked off Friday. By Saturday morning, Okagbare was gone.
Over the years, the Olympics eventually got smart on the timing of doping announcements. They make most of them after the Games are done, when everyone’s exhausted. It’s easy to do a big dump of failed tests after everyone’s gone home and mail the clean winners their medals later.
Despite all the handwringing, it’s an intractable problem. Unless you’re going to embed the testers with the athletes, you can’t catch everyone. The system is not equal to the cunning of the cheaters.
Hoping for a clean Olympics is like hoping for a world without e-mail scams. The only way that’s going to happen is if gold medals and money suddenly lose all their value.
The Olympics’ new and smarter (if no more effective) approach takes a page out of the NFL playbook – stop talking about it.
People will do drugs. The ones who are bad at it will be caught. If the athletes do indeed have a good handle on it, the majority will get away with it. We also know that some of history’s greatest drug cheats were at some point loud critics of drug cheating. So let’s be real – nobody has any idea who is on the up and up here.
That’s not a good thing. It’s just a thing, like tax fraud.
You can stop some of it, but the more you talk about it, the more likely you are to convince people it’s something they can get away with.
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