It was real cloak-and-needle stuff.
The nation uses any stealthy means necessary, especially banned performance-enhancing drugs, to get its elite athletes to the top of their sport.
It’s a point (so to speak) of national pride.
So secret government agents who have their ways are enlisted to convince people that it’s in their best interest to juice up. Testing labs fall under the thumb of coercion, too.
Russia, right? Nope, this was the scenario former Olympic gold-medal marathoner Frank Shorter recounted for us just last Thursday at a dinner commemorating the Stockade-athon 15k’s 40th anniversary.
He was directly affected by East Germany’s doping efforts, since Shorter lost the 1976 Olympic marathon to Waldemar Cierpinski, whose code number was on a list of doping athletes kept by the Stasi secret police that was uncovered in an investigation in the 1990s.
So it was with a distinct and eerie sense of déjá vu that I read about the latest scandal surrounding the Russian track and field national team just four days later. Garnering much less attention was a story from Reuters on Friday that, like the Russian track and field program, Kenya is under scrutiny by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?
The latest from Russia serves as a reminder that drug testing still falls woefully short of what it’s supposed to do, which is prevention in the pursuit of an ideal of clean, even competition.
Sure, these people appear to have been caught red-handed and are in danger of being slammed with a ban from international competition, including the 2016 Olympic Games. But the fact remains that the risk-reward tradeoff still leans heavily toward the reward end of the scale.
Shorter’s experience in Montreal in 1976 and the subsequent report over a decade later on East German practices prompted him to contact one of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet members, Barry McCaffrey, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
McCaffrey asked Shorter to outline how a drug-control agency for sports could work, “So I did,” Shorter said. “I wrote a memorandum about what the agency should be, and that agency became USADA. So that was my response, in a way, to what happened in 1976.”
The United States Anti-Doping Agency, this country’s chapter of WADA, began operations in 2000, and Shorter served as USADA chairman until 2003.
He gave a fascinating account of how the East Germans conducted their shady business.
In the 1976 race, this man of mystery in the white singlet, whom Shorter guessed (incorrectly) was Carlos Lopes of Portugal, pulled away from Shorter at 20 miles, “and I think to myself, ‘That was too easy.’ Then with about 5k to go, I came back on him to within 50 meters, he turned around, looked at me and just took off.
“He finishes, I’m shaking his hand to congratulate him, and he said, ‘Sprechen sie Deutsch?’, which I thought was really funny for somebody from Portugal to ask me.”
Mystery solved. Cierpinski was a no-name who beat the 1972 gold medalist, then turned up as “number 62” on the coded list of athletes when it was uncovered in 1998 by Dr. Werner Franke. Shorter didn’t get mad or even, he got philosophical, and continues to be a vocal advocate for policies to prevent cheating.
It turns out the Stasi had destroyed many records, but not this one. Another document Shorter has seen is a letter from Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, mandating a drug program for athletes. It was a productive program in 1976, when the GDR, population 16 million, cleaned up 40 gold medals in Montreal, second only to the Soviet Union’s 49.
“In this letter, because Honecker had mailed it, it would be as if President Obama said, ‘We’re going to have a sports team and we’re going to be on drugs and it’s going to be overseen by the CIA,’ ” Shorter said.
The parallels between Shorter’s account and what WADA depicted in Russia when the report came out on Monday are startling.
WADA said, “It would be naive in the extreme to conclude that activities on the scale discovered could have occurred without the explicit or tacit approval of Russian governmental authorities. The Olympic Games in London were, in a sense, sabotaged by admission of athletes who should have not been competing.”
The report also describes an “atmosphere of intimidation” by Russia’s secret police toward a Moscow anti-doping lab at the 2014 Sochi Games.
With ads for the latest James Bond movie ringing in our ears, I had to wonder whether Spectre has a hand in all this, too.
Rather than chase the rabbit with drug tests that can’t keep up with non-stop designer drug advances, Shorter’s solution is expanded use of biological passport programs, which flips drug testing around by providing a baseline profile for each athlete through regular blood testing. If an athlete’s profile prior to competition deviates significantly from the baseline, they’re disqualified before the competition even starts.
“You know they’re making progress when people are trying to figure out how not to do it,” he said.
“That can work and will work if people truly want to know. All that’s going on now is people are trying to figure out ways to not do that. But if you implement that system, and it’s done independently, and the oversight is independent . . . we’re really close.”
We’re also on the hook for a really expensive program, which is another hurdle the biological passport concept faces.
In the meantime, it’s obvious that there remains a common belief that cheating through PEDs is still worth the risk.