Half the joy for sports fans in watching the world’s best athletes is to see them challenge the presumed limits of the human body. The challenge is mostly mental, requiring tenacity, talent, training, and technique. So when doping or other unfair material enhancements are used, the thrill is gone, as blues master B.B. King used to sing.
This is why world sports bodies need to take seriously the latest allegations of doping in Olympic sports. An investigation by The Sunday Times and the German broadcaster DNR alleges that a third of world and Olympic medals in endurance events between 2001 and 2012 were won by athletes who had recorded suspicious blood tests, suggesting possible use of banned performance-enhancing drugs.
The allegations are credible enough that the World Anti-Doping Agency is “very alarmed” and has launched an independent investigation. And the International Olympic Committee promises “zero tolerance” if the claims about specific athletes are verified.
The investigation was based on secret data released by a whistle-blower at the International Association of Athletics Federations, the body that oversees the track-and-field sports in the Olympics. The data was analyzed by two doping experts who questioned why the IAAF did not follow up in many cases or was not transparent about the information. The IAAF defends its actions, especially since 2009, when it greatly improved the techniques to detect “atypical” results in tests of athletes.
With the next Summer Olympics coming in 2016, world sports bodies will need to sort out the truth in these allegations in order to keep the trust of sports fans. Scandals have already engulfed world soccer with charges of match-rigging in many games and bribe-taking at FIFA, which runs the World Cup. Cycling’s governing body is trying hard to recover from the steroid use of many past contestants, such as Lance Armstrong.
One sign of hope for the IAAF: The expected winner in this month’s election of a new president, Britain’s Lord Coe, has called for drug testing to be completely independent of the sports body. This will help separate promotion of the sports from the key task of maintaining their integrity. Fans want their athletes to be models of excellence. Breaking limits in endurance sports should not be a contest of drug use.