Is the difference between Russian and American sporting culture as stark as 'they're willing to cheat, and we're not'? Or is simply the case that we cheat differently?
Photo by Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
When American swimmer Lilly King wagged her finger at Russian Yulia Efimova in the pool at the Rio Games last summer, it was an iconic Olympic moment. Americans good, Russians bad. Americans train hard, Russians cheat.
While some criticized King's taunting as unsportsmanlike, to many Americans it felt right. The wide-ranging Russian doping scandal that erupted prior to the Games resulted in dozens of athletes getting banned from competition, including, initially, Efimova. The swimmer was never named in investigations of Russia's state-sponsored doping program—in fact, she's trained in the U.S. since 2011 under famed coach Dave Salo, who runs a prominent aquatics center in Southern California. But because Efimova had previously tested positive for banned substances, she automatically triggered sanction under additional criteria the IOC put in place for the Russian team. The day before the Opening Ceremony, Efimova successfully appealed her Olympic ban and was reinstated. Soon enough, rightly or wrongly, she became the face of Russian athletics program under fire.
To be sure, something was different about the Russian scandal, which came to light in 2015 and is still reverberating through the sports world. It was systematic, clandestine, and purposefully orchestrated by government officials to circumvent doping regulations for more than a thousand competitors. It confirmed a lot of Russian stereotypes from both the Cold War and bad 1980s movies and video games, in which the Red Menace was always a cartoonish supervillain, playing unfair and bent on world domination. Sure, American athletes might dope now and then, but just as sure, America as a country would never do something so organized.
Or would we?
It's pretty easy to think that the good ol' U-S-of-A is above state-sponsored doping because we're too ethical to cheat. Only there's plenty of historical evidence that our athletes are just as willing to take a needle as anyone else. The real reason you'll never see Americans coordinate anything as extreme as Russia's Mission Impossible-style pee-swapping isn't because we won't, but rather because we can't—all thanks to the Amateur Sports Act, a 39-year-old law that, ironically, was created for the very purpose of beating the Russians in sports.
Let's go back to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. America got absolutely creamed by the Communists. The Soviets won 49 golds and 125 medals overall; East Germany, with a population of 17 million people, took home 40 golds and 90 medals; and the United States, population 220 million, came in a pathetic third with 34 golds and 94 medals. No other country won more than ten gold medals.
A year before the Montreal Games, President Gerald Ford had created a commission on Olympic sports, in part to study America's lack of competitiveness. Led by the chairman of Kodak, Gerald Zornow, the commission presented its findings to Ford in January 1977, recommending a more organized approach to Olympic preparations and a plan to provide adequate funding.
The following year, President Jimmy Carter signed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 into law. This accomplished two goals, according to Mark Johnson, author of Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports. First, it put the United States Olympic Committee in charge of the American Olympic program, eliminating conflicts between rival factions jockeying for control of individual sports. Second, it made the USOC a non-governmental organization and gave it zero public funding.
Instead, the country's Olympic ambitions would be funded by selling marketing rights; the Amateur Sports Act gave the USOC exclusive rights to the Olympic rings, motto, and Team USA trademarks. In short, it corporatized the American Olympic movement. America would beat the commies and do it via straight-up capitalism; none of this government-funded socialist funny business.
As the rest of the country went, so went doping. The USOC didn't take an active role in chemical enhancement, but part and parcel with the Amateur Sports Act was, ironically, a degree of professionalization. Athletes' livelihoods now depended on results. The USOC wasn't making anyone dope, but it was telling them they had to perform in an athletic climate rife with cheating. However they went about doing that, well, that was up to them. There was only one implicit instruction: don't get caught.
Professor John Gleaves of Cal State Fullerton, a sports historian, drew parallels between American doping efforts and the military-industrial complex: "Think about how the government contracts with Lockheed and Boeing to make its fighter planes. So the U.S. doesn't 'build' any fighter planes, but it does. It's kind of doing the same thing with doping. It's facilitating, supporting, and even contributing resources to help athletes level that pharmacological playing field, but it's doing it in a way that is like, alright, go find your drugs, and then we'll help get a doctor to monitor you."
And find their drugs they did. Four years after the Act was signed into law, in 1983 at the Pan-Am Games in Caracas, U.S. athletes narrowly escaped what Sports Illustrated then called "one of the broadest, most heavily publicized drug scandals ever to hit amateur sports." On the Sunday before competition, 15 athletes from ten countries were disqualified due to positive drug tests, thanks to a new and more effective testing method.
Less than 48 hours later, 12 U.S. Track and Field athletes flew home because they suspected they would test positive, too. Among them was U.S. shot putter Ian Pyka, who told SI that it was suspiciously easy for him to leave Caracas and fly to New York. He suspected the USOC was up to something. "[I was told] 'We have a ticket for you, we have flights for you.'"
Regardless, the USOC had to make sure something like this didn't happen during the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. The city had altered its charter so as to specifically ban any public funding for the Games; the 1984 Olympics had to be completely privately funded. Corporate sponsors didn't want their names attached to cheaters, steroids, and doping. So before the Games, the USOC tested athletes at the doping lab set up at UCLA, which would test samples during the Olympics themselves.
Of the 86 athletes who tested positive in these preliminary tests, Johnson writes, 84 went on to compete in the Olympics. During the Games themselves, 20 athletes who won medals and tested positive were never punished because, as Johnson describes in his book, we don't know who they are. The IOC member who possessed the sheet of paper matching the anonymous sample ID numbers with the actual athletes lost the spreadsheet. To this day, there's much speculation about whether the LA Organizing Committee was involved in this paper's disappearance.
Although the USOC wasn't actively running a doping program like the one in East Germany—which also included revolutionary sports science breakthroughs that have nothing to do with drugs and are still used today—the organization was working behind the scenes to ensure the American Olympic model wasn't tarnished. In a conversation with VICE Sports, Johnson called the pre-Olympics UCLA tests "a forum to help athletes make sure that all the drugs that were in their system were out before they went and competed, to avoid embarrassing the Olympic organizers."
Adhering to American ideals and those of the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, our sports doping arguably has become privatized. For example, there are reasons to believe that Nike has been involved in doping Olympic athletes dating back to the 1970s with its Athletics West project. In 1992, two former Nike executives published a book titled Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There, which, as an Associated Press report summarized, alleged "competitors for Athletics West, the Nike-sponsored track club that operated from 1977-1985, used steroids and officials of the club were aware of it." (Nike attempted to discredit the book by citing the fact that one of the co-authors subsequently ran his own ad agency, which had Adidas as a client.)
In 2001, Nike opened a new training initiative called the Oregon Project with the mission of improving American long-distance running. By every measure, it has been successful, as American performances have gotten faster. But in 2015, ProPublica published a bombshell expose accusing the Oregon Project's famed coach, Alberto Salazar, of regularly encouraging and helping athletes dope and cover their tracks (Salazar denied all the allegations and is still the head coach at the Nike Oregon Project).
The Nike Oregon Project is a "contemporary descendant" of the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, Johnson says, highlighting a fundamental conflict: the problem-solvers in American culture tend to be corporations, not governments. Corporations want to be associated with success and winners, not scandal and doping. They want results, but they don't want the dirty hands that, throughout the entire history of sports, have come with victory. This leads the doping process in America to be decentralized, ad hoc, and up to individual actors. Every American doping scandal, then, is an isolated incident that doesn't reflect on the American sporting culture writ large, no matter how insidious it may be or how many athletes are caught. The focus is always on the bad apples—Marion Jones and BALCO; Lance Armstrong and his cycling team; the names in baseball's Mitchell Report—and never on the corporate money tree from which they grow.
Back to King's finger wag, and Americans' collective sense that it was deserved. Is the difference between Russian and American sporting culture as stark as they're willing to cheat, and we're not? Or is simply the case that we cheat differently? Recall that when Armstrong was doping his way to Tour de France domination—while sanctimoniously pretending otherwise—some of the best evidence that he was on more than just "his bike" came from his rivals, almost all of whom were getting busted for taking performance-enhancing drugs.
In the 2014 Sochi Games, Gleaves says, "Russia basically had an invisibility cloak to do all the doping they wanted and yet, they did not go one-two-three in all those medals podiums." Russia won only five more medals in Sochi than the U.S. "So all I'm left to conclude is either the rest of the world athletes' outside of Russia are that much superior to Russian athletes, or the rest of the world athletes' might also be doing something to keep up or continue beating Russian athletes."
Just so there's no misunderstanding: many American athletes don't dope. They work hard because they love their sport and want to succeed cleanly. But the difference between what Russia did and what American athletes do is more a reflection of laws and culture, not morals. America has BALCO and Armstrong and Nike's Oregon Project and surely other private doping projects that we don't know about. And that's precisely the point.
Our respective cheating systems are just like our economic structures: America is bottom-up and decentralized, Russia is top-down and command-and-control. In America, those who choose to cheat get their drugs independently, ensuring the larger system that often looks the other way while always incentivizing bottom-line performance—by any means necessary—is never indicted. In a sense, the 1978 Amateur Sports Act was a brilliant piece of legislation. It ensures that America will never have a Russian-style doping scandal. We can't. Every cheater is merely one bad apple. Every last one of them.
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