Will 2017 be the year to defeat sports doping?

2016 revealed massive illegal drug use by Russian athletes. Could that scandal become a turning point?

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
Russian Alexander Legkov celebrates as he receives his gold medal for the men's cross-country 50-kilometer race during the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February 2014.

The Associated Press named last fall’s feel-good victory by the Chicago Cubs – who won baseball’s World Series for the first time in more than a century – as the top sports story of 2016.

But the most meaningful international sports story of the year may be the discovery of widespread, state-sanctioned illegal drug doping by Russian athletes. The practice appears to have included more than 1,000 athletes and to have been under way for many years.

The names of individual athletes who have been caught continue to be revealed. And the results of the disclosures, from stripping individual athletes of their Olympic medals to moving future international sporting events out of Russia, will continue to play out into 2017 and beyond.

Already an international biathlon event and an international speed-skating competition, both scheduled to be held in Russia in March, will be moved to venues in other countries. As of now, Russia is still scheduled to host the 2018 World Cup of soccer, one of the most watched and most prestigious sporting events in the world.

In early December an investigation by Canadian sports lawyer Richard McLaren confirmed, based on information provided by whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab, that at least a thousand Russian athletes competing in more than 30 sports have been involved. “For years, international sports competitions have unknowingly been hijacked by the Russians,” Mr. McLaren concluded.

The Russians are hardly the first to be found guilty of using illegal drugs to enhance athletic performances. But it is the scale of the abuse, and the apparent involvement of the Russian government itself in helping to deceive international drug testers, that has opened eyes in astonishment.

If, as expected, 28 Russian athletes who competed in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, are stripped of their medals by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it would cause Russia to forfeit its position as having won the most medals at that prestigious competition.

The president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, says the Russian violations, if true, represent “a fundamental attack on the integrity of sport” and that those individuals found to have cheated should not only have any Olympic medals taken away but be banned from competing in any future Olympic Games.

The search for solutions is now under way. Stories of just how drug testers were fooled are coming to light. But also being revealed is evidence that when rules and procedures are changed to shut down one way to cheat, new approaches continue to be found.

Drug-testing measures will have to be refined and strengthened.

One encouraging sign has come from athletes themselves. The Clean Sport Collective, launched in November, aims to unite athletes, athletic clothing and shoe brands, and fans to support athletes and sporting events free of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Athletes who join sign a pledge that they will be “clean” (drug-free) competitors.

“We really wanted to make a positive impact and change the narrative to celebrate the brands and all of the amazing and inspiring people who are doing it the right way,” Shanna Sparks Burnette, a former college runner who cofounded the collective, told the Associated Press. “The mentality is ‘win at all costs, do whatever you can do to get ahead.’ As a society ... we need to not do that to each other.”

Illegal drug-doping damages the concept of fair play that beats at the heart of any sports competition. Unless it can be curtailed, it will threatens to leave a cloud of cynicism looming over some of the world’s greatest sporting events.

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