As pre-Olympic coverage ramps up across the world’s media outlets, the cloud of doping suspicions only appears to grow stronger. That gathering storm of pessimism and distrust has caused on Washington Post columnist to propose a unique solution.
Kevin B. Blackistone writes this week that the 2016 Rio Olympics should delay its medal ceremonies, holding a separate awards gala well after the Olympics close – and after all prospective medalists have passed anti-doping tests.
Blackistone compares Olympic medal ceremonies to college graduations, which typically happen before grades have been finalized. With final marks still hanging in the balance, many colleges hold graduation ceremonies, but don’t send out official diplomas until days or weeks later, once final grades have been tallied and all students who walked the line have officially earned passing marks across the board.
“The latest tradition of the Olympics, which return in three weeks at Rio,” Blackistone writes, “is the stripping and re-rewarding of medals won through ill-gotten means, known as performance-enhancing drugs.”
Blackistone’s idea does have some interesting advantages. Athletes who are later awarded medals when an original medalist fails their post-event anti-doping test would get an official medal ceremony. (Blackistone recounts the story of American sprinter Carl Lewis, who finished 2nd in the 100-meter dash in 1988, only for gold medalist Ben Johnson to fail his drug test. Johnson was forced to give back the gold medal, which he received in a lavish, public ceremony, and Lewis received the gold – but his “ceremony” was a private meeting in an office underneath the Olympic stadium.)
Television sponsors of the Olympics could certainly find advantages, too, to having a separate Olympic awards ball weeks after the Olympics, with a televised awards ceremony drawing in viewers and wringing more viewership out of Olympic television deals.
The Doping Cloud Within Swimming
Blackistone’s column mostly focuses on athletics, where the bulk of the Olympic doping issues have come recently. Russia’s entire athletics program (“athletics” at the Olympic level refers to track and field, not all athletic events) has been barred from the Rio Olympics after a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report uncovered what was alleged to be a massive, state-sponsored doping program.
But swimming hasn’t been immune to doping issues, either. Again, Russia is at the forefront, with world champ Yulia Efimova taking most of the heat.
Banned for 16 months in 2013 for a positive DHEA test, Efimova tested positive earlier this year for meldonium, a blood-flow drug banned by WADA at the beginning of 2016. When the ban took effect, though, there was some confusion as to how long meldonium can remain in an athlete’s system. Unable to prove whether Efimova had taken meldonium in late 2015 as she claims (when it was still legal) or in 2016 (when it had been banned), FINA was forced to drop the charges against Efimova, who will now compete in Rio and is a likely candidate for medals in the 100 and 200 breast.
But Russia isn’t alone. Other nations and swimmers who have dealt with anti-doping suspicions or failed tests who still might be allowed to compete in Rio:
- South Korea: Olympic champ Park Tae-hwan was banned for 18 months in 2014 for testing positive for high testosterone levels. His suspension ended before the Olympics, but Korea has a stricter national policy of holding out any athlete with a doping suspension from international competition for 3 years. But Park challenged the ban with the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won, and the Korean Olympic Committee overturned his ban, allowing him to compete in Rio.
- China: The Chinese swimming federation announced earlier this year that 6 swimmers had failed doping tests since the beginning of 2016. The names and punishments of the 6 were not immediately revealed, but a Chinese paper later reported the names of three of them: Zhao Ying, An Jiabao and Wang Lizhou, who set the Chinese national and junior world records in the 100 breast this year. Later, the Chinese federation announced that An and Wang would be punished with “warning penalties,” with their clubs being forced to pay monetary penalties. China hasn’t released its official Olympic roster, but Wang is likely a part of it, and a medal contender in the 100 breast and 4×100 medley relay.
- Brazil: The host nation’s star female sprinter Etiene Medeiros failed a doping test in June. It’s unclear at this point what her punishment will be.
In addition, the WADA anti-doping lab in Rio de Janeiro has its own issues. Last month, it was suspended by WADA for the second time since 2013. The nation says it has fixed the problems and expects the lab to be reopened before the Olympics, where it would then test most or all of the samples from the Rio Olympics.
With the Olympics only about three weeks away, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the topic of doping will be one of the biggest storylines, casting a constant cloud over competition and turning what was envisioned as a celebration of all that is right with sport into a detailed exhibit of what is unfortunately wrong with it in the year 2016.