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Opinion: Systematic Doping - Why we shouldn't blame the athletes

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Russia has had 49 Olympic medals stripped for drug violations – the most of any country, four times the number of the runner-up, and more than a third of the global total.

When you look at the sheer extent of the Russian doping scandal it becomes incredibly easy to overlook each athlete as an individual. Did 1000 Russian athletes across 30 sports really all sign up to the state-sponsored ploy by their own free will and volition?

Yes, there is widespread anger. Fans, officials and fellow athletes rightly feel cheated. But whenever a major doping scandal comes to the forefront, the dopers take the brunt of the blame. Is this finger-pointing bandwagon justified, or should we dig deeper and deeper still, until we unearth the dark figures influencing from the beneath. When will we start to point our fingers at them instead?

To believe that this extensive, state-led doping scandal was pioneered and directed only by the athletes convicted is quite frankly ludicrous. Further, optimistically thinking each individual athlete was given a choice, a simple democratic yes or no to the scheme is also, farcical.

We know little about the actual Russian doping scandal, indeed the claims are unsurprisingly disputed by Moscow. However, the information collated from whistleblowers such as former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory Grigory Rodchenkov paint a vivid picture. Even if it is a landscape of bigoted distortion.

Bryan Fogel’s 2017 film Icarus is a much watch. Available on Netflix, Rodchenkov tells all, revealing his role as the mastermind and keystone of the doping plan.

“In Sochi, (the) laboratory was like this. (There) was our entrance, but from this behind where we have a fire exit, there is another building. It was a KGB building, and (the) bank of clean urines was kept here.” Rodchenkov discloses.

“Throughout the day our KGB officer, brought the clean urines of all our athletes selected for testing to our secret operational room in the laboratory. (In total) There were around 100 FSB officers working in Sochi.”

The doping came from the top down, former WADA president, Dick Pound even professed Kremlin involvement stating to the press in 2015: “The extent of what was going on, it was so prevalent that in our conclusion it was not possible for him (Vladimir Putin) to be unaware of it.”

Ponder for a moment. With this knowledge, both the Russian president and the KGB were enforcing this scandal, conjuring images of athlete intimidation, even torture suddenly do not appear so far fetched.

When an athlete is told about the regime, how the win at all costs mindset of performing well at the home 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics is of the utmost importance, what do they do? Are we supposed to believe if they refused to dope they would merely be allowed to walk free, able to compete clean? Would a promise not to reveal the sensitive information which had just been disclosed to them do the trick?

As a foreigner, the Russian secret service seems a tad scary. Alexander Litvinenko, the extreme homophobia, influencing the US elections and all that. If I was a young, vulnerable Russian sportsmen I would rather be with them then against them. The lack of athletes coming forward does not indicate a nonchalant, dismissive attitude, of dopers showing a lack of remorse. No, it indicates fear.

The full truth will remain under a thick veil of secrecy for some time to come. It is the same reason why the true horrors of East Germany’s similar systematic doping scandal only circulated once the iron curtain had parted. A whistleblower who does not make it into FBI protection like Rodchenkov is a very vulnerable target.

Eerily similar to East Germany?

The treatment of East German athletes was deplorable, an example of horrific maltreatment and scaremongering from above. From 1976, across a period of just over a decade, East Germany won more medals than any other nation at three Olympic Games and two World Championships.

But the success came at a cost. "We were a large experiment, a big chemical field test," says Ines Geipel, a former world record holder in the women's sprint relay.

"The old men in the regime used these young girls for their sick ambition. They knew the mini-country absolutely had to be the greatest in the world. That's sick. It's a stolen childhood."

In 1984 at a training camp in Mexico, Geipel fell in love with a local athlete. She planned to flee to the US but was exposed by the secret police. "They tried to force me to commit to the Stasi. But I didn't do it.

"They didn't see any other option than to operate on me and cut through my stomach. They cut the stomach in such a way, through all the muscles and everything, so that I couldn't run anymore and didn't have a way of getting to the rest of the world anymore.”

It may be far-fetched to compare this brutalist behaviour to the Russian officials keeping the Russian athletes in line. But Geipel’s story does emphasise the terror the athletes of East Germany felt, the drugs being forced upon them, the very real threat to their lives if they dissented.

"The Stasi had built wooden crates, like rabbit crates, in hotel rooms. I find it so symbolic. We were objects, we weren't people."

In 2000, 32 women filed a lawsuit against the perpetrators and the court in Berlin heard tales of woe regarding hearts, livers, kidneys and reproductive organs, with mothers blaming the disability of their children on the wrecking ball of drugs.

The dopers under the authorities programmes were not twisted cheats, they were athletes abused and oppressed. Could this not also be said of the Russian dopers and all those dragged into systematic doping programmes?

We do not know if any violence on a similar scale has been undertaken by Russian officials. We may never know. I detest the thought but I do genuinely believe Russian athletes may have been exposed to similar treatment used by the Stasi in the 1970s leaving them agitated and frightened.

These athletes are only human. Fear can be the ultimate inducement. True they doped and cheating in sport is always deplorable, but think for a second, in their position, choosing between steroids and the cold harmful unknown, which path would you take? I would take the drugs, stay safe and shut up. And that is why I do not lay a single ounce of blame on the Russian athletes.

Image Credit - Wikimedia Commons

Image above shows Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Postogova, two Russian athletes who have been found guilty of doping.




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