In a sport plagued by doping scandals, the women’s 1500-meter final at the London Olympics stands out—and not for the right reasons.
Photo by EPA
This week as part of VICE Sports' Olympic preview, we are taking a look at the sports War on Doping.
Shannon Rowbury stepped to the starting line of London's Olympic Stadium four years ago with one goal: to win a medal for the United States at the 2012 Summer Games. It was the final of the women's 1500 meters, and most of the world's top middle distance runners were there. Clad in the red Team USA uniform, with her brown hair pulled back in a braid, Rowbury kissed her wedding ring and then blew a kiss to the camera as she was introduced to the crowd of eighty thousand cheering in the stands.
Before the race even started, Rowbury knew she was competing against a couple convicted drug cheats. Still, her best was good enough for a bronze medal at the World Championships a few years earlier and she trained well for the Olympics. She felt ready to bring home a medal.
But then the runners took off.
"As soon as I finished the race, I had an awful feeling. I knew something just wasn't right about that competition and how it had played out," Rowbury said. "It was a sense of helplessness."
Instead of a victory lap with her country's flag wrapped around her shoulders, Rowbury went for a cool down and cried. She had finished in sixth place, well short of her expectations. Less than a second separated her from the podium.
"I was sobbing for five or ten minutes, maybe more, in the middle of the Olympic ring with people walking all around me," she said. "I was so upset. I knew there was something not right about that race."
Rowbury's hunch has turned out to be correct. Of the thirteen women to run that race on August 10, 2012, six have been suspended for doping at some point in their careers. Four of them finished ahead of Rowbury, including the gold and silver medalists, Asli Cakir Alptekin and Gamze Bulut, both from Turkey. Some of the runners had served bans before the 2012 Games; others were disqualified after the fact and stripped of their honors. In a sport plagued by doping scandals, the women's 1500-meter event in London is among the dirtiest races in the history of track and field.
There is no categorical way to define the "dirtiest" race in history. The men's 100-meter final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics has long held that ill-famed distinction in the press and pop culture. Canadian Ben Johnson won the race, breaking the world record in the process, but two days later he tested positive for steroids. Johnson was stripped of the gold medal, and his record was erased. Six of the eight men in the final were linked to performance-enhancing drugs at some point in their career. But the women's 1500-meter final has had more of its participants disqualified from the race itself for doping, and four years later, the matter of who finished in what place is still an unsettled matter.
Even before the opening ceremonies in London, controversy was brewing around the competition. Neither Alptekin nor Bulut had raced much on the international level in the Olympic off years and yet the two women appeared to be running away from a field that included world champions. Bulut had lowered her time from 4:18 to 4:03 earlier that year, and in the semi-finals she ran it faster still, in 4:01. These quick improvements, while not evidence in and of themselves, raised suspicion. Alptekin already had been handed a two-year ban for testing positive for steroids at the 2004 world junior championships. Meanwhile, Russia's Tatyana Tomashova, the 2004 silver medalist who wound up finishing fourth at London, had missed the 2008 Games because of a two-year suspension; the IAAF caught her—and six other Russian athletes—manipulating urine samples.
Once the race was over, the other 1500-meter finalists were immediately skeptical.
"I'll probably get into trouble for saying this, but I don't believe I'm competing on a level playing field," Great Britain's Lisa Dobriskey, who placed tenth in the Olympic final, told the Guardian after the event.
But it would take years for Alptekin to be stripped of her gold medal, Turkey's first for track and field. The IAAF charged Alptekin with a doping violation in January 2013, based on abnormalities in her athlete biological passport (testing that monitors athletes for doping over time), but the Turkish Athletic Federation cleared her of wrongdoing later that year. After the IAAF took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sports, the two sides reached a settlement in 2015. Alptekin's results were disqualified and, since this was her second violation, she was suspended for eight years. (Alptekin had been provisionally suspended through much of the process, which counted toward her punishment.)
Around the same time, a series of documentaries by the German broadcaster ARD exposed corruption and extortion schemes by top officials at the IAAF, including former president Lamine Diack and his sons, who have been accused of accepting bribes to keep positive drug tests quiet. Alptekin was among the athletes approached by the Diacks and, according to a World Anti-Doping Agency report sparked by ARD's investigations, in the fall of 2012 she agreed to pay up. After being publicly charged by the IAAF the next year, she eventually cooperated with the investigation. Her eight-year suspension was reduced to four years on the condition of continued cooperation.
Other drug cheats from the 1500 final have slowly been found out. Natallia Kareiva, the seventh-place finisher from Belarus, was suspended in 2014 for two years for abnormalities in her biological passport. All of her results as far back as July 28, 2010 were disqualified. Russia's Ekaterina Kostetskaya, who crossed the line in ninth, was also suspended in 2014 for two years for failing a test at the world championships in 2011. Abeba Aregawi, the fifth-place finisher, was provisionally suspended in February this year for meldonium. The Swedish Athletics Federation lifted Aregawi's ban mid-July since it could not prove that she took meldonium after January 1, 2016, when it was added to WADA's list of banned substances.
In response to the IAAF scandal, the International Olympic Committee and WADA created a task force to reanalyze samples from the London and Beijing Games. Since then, 98 athletes have tested positive for prohibited substances and are provisionally suspended pending investigation. The task force will continue its work throughout and after the 2016 Olympic Games.
After the first round of reanalysis, Bulut, the silver medalist turned gold after Alptekin's disqualification, was provisionally suspended in March of this year. Her case is awaiting a decision, and the IAAF still lists her as the gold medalist on its website.
Each time an athlete from the London 1500 meters is suspended for doping violations, Rowbury hears about it. She receives a text from friends and family, or reads about it in the news and on social media.
"The past can't be changed, but my hope is that we can at least create a better system and protocol to keep those effected up to speed," Rowbury said. "It's also important for these athletes that were robbed of the Olympic medal experience a consolation when the entire country is watching—give them the honor and accolades that they earned."
It is unclear how or when medals will be re-awarded. As it stands now, and assuming Bulut will be disqualified, third-place finisher Maryam Jamal, of Bahrain, will be upgraded to gold; Tomashova looks to be awarded the silver; and Aregawi is in line to receive the bronze. Rowbury would be fourth. Whether or not that will change after additional rounds of reanalysis is unknown. In an email, the IOC said that "the procedure regarding the reallocation of medals is currently underway"; however they did not respond to a request for clarification.
Rowbury earned a spot on her third US Olympic team last month and will compete in the first round of the 1500 meters on August 12th in Rio. Few of her competitors from that 2012 final will be able to join her.
Earlier this year, Alptekin filed an appeal to CAS to reduce her ban even further so she would be eligible for the Rio Games. It was rejected and she will remain suspended until January 2017. Bulut is still under investigation. Kareiva's two-year suspension ends August 22nd, two weeks after the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro. Any other year, Tomashova and Kostetskaya would be eligible to compete, having served their respective suspensions. But in the wake of Russia's recent doping scandal, neither woman will be appearing at the 2016 Games. Aregawi is eligible, but the Swedish Federation did not nominate her for their team.
Rowbury says she grateful for the new IAAF leadership making a concerted effort to clean up the sport, but four years later, as she prepares to return to the Olympic Games, she still does not know, exactly, how she placed in London.
"I get asked about London all the time, and I honestly don't know how to answer," Rowbury said. "I crossed the line in sixth, but what place did I get? I don't know."
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