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Bioethics Forum Essay

The Winter Olympics and the Doping Ecosystem

“It is going to be very hard for all the clean athletes to see that the Russians are doping and they are going to walk away, run away with all the medals and you can’t do anything about it.” – Arthur Liu, parent of USA figure skater Alysa Liu on the decision to allow 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva to compete in the Winter Olympics despite a positive doping test.

Mr. Liu’s lament is painfully familiar. The sport may be different—bike racing, running, weightlifting, you name it—along with the country and the athlete, but the plight of athletes who want to compete without resorting to performance enhancing drugs remains the same. I began listening to elite athletes in a Hastings Center research project that began more than forty years ago. I first put what I’d learned in a Hastings Center Report article, “The Coercive Power of Drugs in Sport.”

Athletes described the terrible quandary they faced any time they suspected their competitors were using a potent PED. You could continue to compete clean, knowing that you’re giving up an edge; stop competing; or give in and try to level the playing field by using the same drugs. Along with others I advocated creating a fourth option: find a way to allow athletes to compete based on their natural talents, skill, and dedication without surrendering an unfair advantage to competitors willing to dope.

From the start, efforts to empower clean athletes to create level playing fields were fitful, uncoordinated, and susceptible to corruption. The Olympics, with its labyrinthian alphabet soup of 206 national committees and 35 separate international sport federations, offer abundant cracks and crevices for corrupt actors to sneak through. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was created two decades ago to bring some order to this chaos. As the first chairperson of its ethics body, I had a front row seat view as it struggled with complex scientific and ethical complexities. Those difficulties were dwarfed by the challenges posed by its awkward governance structure, split between Olympic officials and national governments, and its scramble to secure adequate funding.

There have been some successes in the struggle for fairness and meaning in sport. Russia’s systemic, state-supported doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi was eventually exposed. The responsible parties, however, too often go unpunished. I’m not talking about the athletes here: many of the individuals caught doping are ultimately sanctioned, though it can take years in some cases. No, I mean what I’ve called the doping ecosystem—the array of coaches, trainers, doctors, scientists, sports officials, bureaucrats, grifters, and government agents and officials who benefit from the success of the athletes whose doping they enable and promote.

And here is what I find particularly sad about this Winter Olympics. Kamila Valieva is 15 years old. Her Russian coach is notorious for not allowing her teenage skaters to gain weight, forbidding even sips of water during competitions, and employing ethically dubious training techniques. The Washington Post reports she runs “an unforgiving and risky program that critics say drives to stardom and then discards teenage skaters, who have left the sport with severe injuries and reported lasting eating disorders.” It’s not only the coach. David Tinsley, who led an investigation of Russian state-sponsored doping for WADA, has no doubt that Russia’s security and intelligence agencies are in the shadows pulling strings.

To be fair, Russia is not the only malefactor in Olympic sport, nor is figure skating unique in exploiting very young athletes. We need only recall the scandals around USA Gymnastics. But there are some questions we should try to answer.

Who should be punished? First of all, every person and every organization in the ecosystem contributing to the doping of athletes including coaches, doctors, scientists, sports executives, and sports organizations. In that 1983 Hastings Center Report article I pleaded for action against the doping ecosystem. Only in the past decade or so has that begun to happen with any seriousness. And powerful nations can continue to flaunt the rules and undermine fair competition with few and minor consequences, as Russia has shown.

Should we regard Kamila Valieva as a villain if her doping is confirmed? Should she be allowed to compete? We can say no to the first question, and at the same time affirm that she should not have been allowed to compete. She entered the elite sports machine as a child and likely remains very much in its control. Perhaps like the young East German women in the 1960s who took powerful anabolic steroids, she was told the drug was a vitamin or supplement. In any event, vulnerable young athletes too often lack the power or knowledge to challenge their supervisors. I favor strict limits on the recruitment and training of very young athletes. If that means enforcing minimum age limits for Olympic competitions that would protect athletes from abuse, let’s do it. (Valieva’s coach is known as an adamant opponent of such minimum age standards.)

 Why should she not compete in these Olympics given her positive doping test? Because it is unfair to all the other athletes competing in the same events. They deserve to win or lose based on their talents and dedication, not on whether their performance was boosted by drugs.

Alysa Liu’s father had his own question: “If I had known this system was so rigged & officials were so blatantly ignoring the facts & the law & WADA code, I would probably not have put Alysa in skating. Why would you want to put your kids into a sport that is so obviously rigged?”

I know what my answer is. What’s yours?

Thomas H. Murray, PhD, (@thmurray46) is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center and author of Good Sport: Why Our Games Matter and How Doping Undermines Them.

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  1. Thanks for the interesting perspective! I thought that after the 2014 Olympics, when the Russian “doping ecosystem” was exposed, the sanction put in place really had no teeth, since it still allowed athletes to compete; simply under a different banner. Do you think this lack of enforcement is part of the problem?

    1. Yes, the half-hearted punishment of Russia is symptomatic of the failure to confront the root causes of doping in the Olympics. The doping ecosystem thrives even as individual athletes are punished.

  2. Very problematic to me were the reasons given for why she was still allowed to skate. If she is old enough to compete, she is old enough to be held to the rules. Sadly, the young skater herself is among the many here who are injured by failure to enforce rules of justice. A travesty for all of us who love to watch good figure-skating.

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