Gordon Campbell on politicising the war on drugs in sportAugust 15th, 2016
Ironically, the media coverage of the Olympics has been a sterling example of the rabid nationalism that the Olympics were supposed to transcend. So far, its been all about us and our medals and/or our ninth or 27th or 39th place effort. Still, even nationalism can sometimes be fun, as these Irish brothers and their ‘podium pants’ have proved.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been much fun at all to see how “war on drugs in sport” has become a proxy version of the Cold War, fixated on Russia. This weekend’s banning of the Russian long jumper Darya Klishina took that fixation to fresh extremes. Initially, Klishina was the only member of Russia’s original 68 strong track and field team cleared to compete in Rio. That’s because she has been training for three years in the US, and has passed every drugs test throughout her career – in Russia, at international meets, and within the United States, where she now resides.
At Rio, Klishina would have been performing as a ‘neutral’ – a decision that earned her ‘traitor ‘ status back home, and evidently won her enemies in high places within the Russia of Vladimir Putin. These Russian authorities have now successfully bad-mouthed her to the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF.). No one (except Klishina herself) has come out of this sorry story with any dignity, but unfortunately, she is the one paying the price.
“I am a clean athlete and have proved that already many times and beyond any doubt. Based in the U.S. for three years now, I have been almost exclusively tested outside of the anti-doping system in question,” [Klishina] wrote. “I am falling victim to those who created a system of manipulating our beautiful sport and is guilty of using it for political purposes. I cannot help but feel betrayed by a system that is not focused on keeping the sport clean and supporting rank-and-file athletes, but rather seeking victories outside sport arenas.”
Exactly. Russia is now the useful scapegoat for a wider problem. As you’ll recall, the International Olympic Committee handed the task of deciding who would – or wouldn’t – compete in Rio to the individual federations governing each sport. At the time, this had looked like duck shoving by the IOC – but the rationale was that each federation would be better placed to determine who was a dope cheat, and would thus be better able to ensure that clean athletes would not have their years of effort unfairly trashed by a blanket ban. In practice, this hasn’t happened.
Because the doping scandal broke on the very eve of the Olympics, only the Russians have taken the brunt of it. (The Chinese swimmers had aspersions cast on them, but no official ban.) The IOC (and IAAF) did not take any steps to protect the Russian whistle-blowers who had alerted them to the extent of Russia’s state doping regime. More to the point, neither the IOC or IAAF have punished the athletes of Kenya, Ethiopia and the US – who have not been subjected to anything like the same scrutiny and/or retrospective punishments, despite the documentary evidence (certainly with respect to Kenya) of a dope testing regime so lax as to constitute state collusion. Kenya’s drug regime was controversial well before Rio, and the behavior of some of its officials at the Games has done nothing to dispel the suspicions:
A Kenyan athletics coach has been sent home from Rio after posing as an athlete and giving a urine sample. Kenya said sprint coach John Anzrah “presented himself” as 800m medal hope Ferguson Rotich and “even signed the documents” for the doping test….Meanwhile, athletics’ governing body has suspended Kenyan official Michael Rotich over corruption allegations. The country’s track manager was sent home from Rio following newspaper allegations that he was prepared to warn coaches about drugs tests in return for £10,000.
Klishina Klishina has appealed against her ban, and the hearing will take place on Monday night (Rio time) before the qualifying rounds for the long jump are scheduled to begin. Presumably, the IAAF will have to produce the evidence that the Russians have so obligingly provided on their ‘traitor’ athlete. According to Klishina’s mother, the “evidence” in question is that scratches were found on a testing sample Klishina provided at the World Championships in 2013, which suggested the sample could have, might have, been interfered with… by someone.
If this is the extent of the ‘evidence’ – scratches on a test bottle, culprit unknown – this (even at the worst) should have no bearing on the clean record that Klishina has accumulated over the past three years from US (and international athletics meeting) dope testing authorities. Klishina has had a clean bill of health from the same US dope testing regime that has now cleared the US sprinter Justin Gatlin to compete in the 100m final. The repercussions will extend well beyond the track. Because she is photogenic, Klishina also has a modeling career – and that’s probably a major reason why she got signed to the prestigious IMG agency. Given the severe impact on tennis player Maria Sharapova’s sponsorship deals after her meldonium drug test, one can now assume the worst for Klishina’s modeling work. The IAAF – on what looks like the flimsiest of circumstantial (and retroactive) evidence, have all but ruined Klishina’s career, on and off the track. Where exactly is the incentive here for athletes – who may have been drafted into doping regimes by their coaches at a young age – to escape and become clean, if the IOC/IAAF will then proceed to punish them retro-actively, regardless?
If Klishina wasn’t a Russian, one can confidently say that none of this would be happening. Consider the IOC/IAAF/WADA leniency obligingly shown towards British star athlete Mo Farah, who has got away scot free (twice) after skipping drug tests, including one time when he claimed to be “asleep” and didn’t hear the doorbell when the authorities came a-calling for a drug test. As recently as last year, Farah was associating with this dubious individual.
That doesn’t make Farah a drug cheat, but it doesn’t dispel the sense that the IOC/IAAF don’t want to pursue him with quite the same zeal it shows elsewhere. Consider the leniency also shown towards two-time drug cheat Gatlin, who – reasonably enough- now claims to be entirely clean, as shown by his recent rounds of drug testing. Similar IOC/IAAF leniency and forgiveness has been shown to his US team-mate Tyson Gay, and to the Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell. No similar latitude has been extended to Klishina. On a related point, one also has to query why some artificial remedies are considered to be taboo by the IOC/IAAF/WADA, while others are tolerated. Consider for instance, these passages from a recent Newsweek portrait of the Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake:
So we drive to the office of one of the sporting world’s most popular doctors, Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt. “Healing Hans,” as he’s sometimes known, has treated some of the world’s greatest athletes and celebrities, including boxer Wladimir Klitschko, U2’s Bono and Usain Bolt. Müller-Wohlfahrt treats many of his patients, Blake included, with what he calls “infiltrations”—injections of substances into the injured body part. The shots tend to include biological or homeopathic liquids. Blake, a regular visitor to Müller-Wohlfahrt’s clinic, never knows exactly what is in them……
Soon after, I am asked to step out of the room. Müller-Wohlfahrt doesn’t want someone outside of Blake’s team watching him administer the “infiltrations.” Blake tells me later that the doctor gave him seven injections, six in his back and one in his knee. He didn’t ask what was in them. “He knows what the treatment is. He doesn’t have to explain,” Blake says. “I don’t know the name [of what he injects].”
It is likely that at least one of the shots would have included Actovegin, an extract taken from calf blood, which Müller-Wohlfahrt says nearly all of his infiltrations contain. The substance is not approved for use in either the U.S. or Canada, and the International Olympic Committee briefly banned it in 2000, believing that cyclists were using it to enhance their performance. The IOC now permits the use of Actovegin, mainly because there is not enough evidence to prove it enhances athletic performance. But many anti-doping bodies remain suspicious of it.
So when Blake is injected, multiple times – in the belief this will relieve his soreness and improve his condition – this is deemed OK, because the IOC hasn’t banned the mystery substances (calf’s blood?) involved. Compare this narrative with the stance taken towards meldonium, which was outlawed only as of 1 January 2016, after years of being considered legal – and which found its way onto the IOC/IAAF banning list only after 13 medallists at the European Games held in Baku 2015 were found to be using it. Famously, tennis player Maria Sharapova was outed earlier this year (and subsequently banned for two years) as a meldonium user, over her 10 year use went past an arbitrary deadline which she claimed to have not noticed. Her excuses for failing to comply with the testing regime were not accepted. Sharapova, of course, is Russian.
At Rio, the most controversial official gold medal performance so far has been in the women’s 10,000 metres. This race was won by the 24 year old Ethiopian athlete Almaz Ayana in an eyebrow-raising time 14 seconds below the existing world record – a mark set 23 years ago by a Chinese athlete who has since confessed to having been part of a Chinese state –run doping programme. At Rio, this was only Ayana’s second attempt at the distance. To counter any drug insinuations, it should be noted that almost everyone else in the race also ran extremely fast times:
Incredibly the first 13 athletes home all set world records, national records or personal bests, while there were 18 PBs in total in the 35-strong field…..It surely helped that the athletes were running on a newly laid track that its makers, Mondo, have prepared for the Rio Olympics. They insist it is the fastest ever – and athletes who have tried it agree.
Meaning : if Ayana was drug-assisted – and there is no evidence that she was – then she at least inspired a large number of rival athletes to excel in her wake. Right now, the IOC/IAAF do have at last two drug-testing problems. One is on the track. The other has to do with their own selective morality, which seems stuck in a time loop from the Cold War period.
Angel Olsen’s fourth album My Woman is out any day now. Her transition from folkish singer/song writer to noisier rock person is much the same as Neil Young travelled in his periodic excursions with Crazy Horse. (Olsen’s former psych folk contemporary Frances Quinlan has travelled the same route with her band Hop Along.) What’s unique about Olsen – besides the confidently wayward, instantly recognizable voice – is the sardonic sense of humour she brings to her quasi-confessional lyric writing.
That sense of humour infuses the great interview Olsen did last week on Pitchfork that traversed her adopted upbringing in a strongly Christian family, amid numerous older siblings. Though she doesn’t make the link, Olsen’s early career in Will Oldham’s road show must have felt like a similar experience – with her cast as the kid sister alongside a bunch of older, lifer musicians who recognized (but also patronised) her talent. At 29, she’s been out on her own for several years now. Her 2012 Half Way Home was a wonderful dead end of a folk-oriented album that she could have spent her entire career re-making, but she chose not to do so. Two years later, Burn The Fire was her rite of passage to a more sonically complex woman-with-band configuration, while My Woman marks the full-on Crazy Horse incarnation.
Here’s a selection from each stage. Off hand, I can’t think of anyone who makes such a consistent case for the moral weight of sheer endurance, given what we know of how everything – the natural world, our lives and romantic love – is going to turn out in the end. Olsen is deeply fatalistic, but also amused at her own capacity for pleasure in diversion. My favourite cut from Half Way Home would have to be “Miranda” which makes a wry romantic metaphor out of the legal right to be warned against self incrimination. (“Safe Within The Womb” is another great track from that album.)
The Burn The Fire For No Witness album takes its title from a line in this “White Fire” cut – which reaches critical mass like one of those 1970s Leonard Cohen songs where sensuality and self-laceration proceed gloweringly to the point of moral exhaustion and finally, transcendence.
And here’s the self-mockingly silver wig wearing, fourth wall breaking video for “Shut Up Kiss Me” the second single from My Woman. Judging by the large number of dislikes on Youtube, this track has already succeeded in dividing the troops.