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When sports aren’t fair: Some of many ways the Olympic anti-doping strategies are bad

Welcome. Before we begin, a warning: this has the potential to be one of the stupidest and most frustrating articles I have ever written. It’s not like I’m gonna do a bad job or anything, it’s just that the subject at hand, the upcoming “2020” Olympics, has been mired in such a unique cocktail of incompetence, dereliction of logic, and genuine misfortune that you should all count yourselves lucky if I manage to scoop up enough of my liquefied brain to type out any more coherent sentences.

I think the best way to go at this nightmare of a story is to start by comparing the role that the Olympic organizers feel the Games play in general society to my perception of their role. That will give you a good idea of the magical fairy land I believe these people have come to live in, and from there we’ll see how many examples to support this thesis I can get through before I put my head through the screen. 

To the organizers, the Olympics represent a taste of global harmony and dignity, an homage to sport at the highest level, and a motivation to push the human body to its limit. The official Olympics website says the Games are “where the world comes to compete, feel inspired, and be together.” To me, the Olympics represent a breeding ground for controversy, a vessel for Eurocentrism and the entrenchment of hegemonies, and a geopolitical nightmare with millions of dollars in advertising and tourism revenue at stake. 

The coveted cereal endorsement, the real first prize of any Olympic Games

The problem is that reality lies somewhere in between those two perceptions. The Olympics’ role in society is probably not quite as cynically useless as I make it out to be, but it sure as fuck isn’t the rainbow and unicorn orgy the organizers seem to think it is either. Which to me means that when it’s your job to make sure enough people still believe in the orgy for the broadcasters and sponsors in over 200 countries to get paid, it blinds you to some of the less desirable (read: marketable) parts of reality. 

The people with those jobs, the organizers as well as the members of a multitude of sports governing bodies like World Athletics (WA), the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and more, seem to be so caught up in the mission of preserving the mythos of the Games that, in their varying duties, they often neglect the very principles of dignity and competition they’re tasked with upholding in favour of dusty ass rules. Now, I get it, it’s a sporting event, without rules it would just be an extremely diverse bunch of people milling about in a field, but the rules I take issue with, the ones that lend themselves more to the politics and controversy than to the harmony and sport, definitely just don’t have to be there at all. 

For example, why the fuck is weed still banned? By now you all will have heard about the case of Sha’Carri Richardson, a sprinter from the U.S. who finished with the fastest 100-metre time at her country’s Olympic trials in Oregon in June. Upon learning of her biological mother’s death from a reporter at the event, Richardson, who is 21 and fully younger than I am, took marijuana to cope with the news. She tested positive for the drug on a doping test and was handed a one month suspension, which overlapped with her event in Tokyo. She was also left off the roster for the US relay team, despite being the fastest woman in the country and also not suspended on the day of that event. 

Sha'Carri Richardson looking badass after running instead of watching TV, which is what she'll be doing for this year's Olympics

USA Track and Field, the organization responsible for the roster said “All USATF athletes are equally aware of and must adhere to the current anti-doping code, and our credibility as the National Governing Body would be lost if rules were only enforced under certain circumstances,” even though they literally aren’t enforcing any rules by leaving her off the relay team. So to recap, the fastest woman in the U.S. was barred from competing in her best event because she used a drug that, according to WADA’s own medical director, Dr. Alan Vernec, doesn’t enhance performance in order to cope with her mother’s death in a state where weed is legal and no drugs are illegal, and THEN her own team just CHOSE to keep her out of Japan altogether. 

Also, I went on the US Anti Doping Agency’s website to see what it says about weed, and it’s so insane, I just have to post the whole thing: 

“For something to be added to the WADA Prohibited List, it must meet two of the three inclusion criteria:  a) it poses a health risk to athletes b) it has the potential to enhance performance and c) it violates the spirit of sport.

“In 2011, WADA published a paper in Sports Medicine discussing the reasons marijuana and cannabinoids meet the criteria. Below are excerpts from this publication that address the three criteria:

  1. “Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.”
  2. “Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”
  3. “Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world”.

First of all, the first two criteria completely contradict each other. ‘Weed is dangerous because it makes your reaction times and brain slower but also we’ve decided it’s performance enhancing?’ Like, what??? And second of all, by this logic, if a drug meets either of the first two criteria, it will necessarily meet the third criterion, they might as well get rid of it completely. They legit just said ‘if a drug poses a health risk to athletes or enhances performance, it violates the spirit of the sport.’ This guideline is so fucking stupid it hurts...

So do you see what I mean about some rules being useless? Maybe you need some more convincing, I’ve got more where that came from. That was a story about a black woman who was banned for taking drugs, here’s a story about two black women who were banned for not taking drugs. Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi made waves when they both set impressive 400-metre times at events leading up to this month’s Games. But when WADA came a-knockin, they too were banned from competing in their best events because of high natural testosterone levels. That’s right, even in sports, bureaucrats be governing women’s bodies. 

Christine Mboma, who is much better at the 400-metre race than the 200-metre race, but I guess fuck her right?

Apparently women (only women by the way, let’s be clear) who run races from the 400-metre to the one mile are required to have natural testosterone levels below a certain threshold and are required to artificially lower those levels if they don’t meet the requirement. That sounds batshit now, but wait until I tell you that this rule was put into place after another sprinter, South Africa’s Caster Semenya, dominated those races over the past several years. The rules basically ran Semenya, who refused to artificially lower her testosterone with either an invasive procedure or drugs, out of championship running forever. Mboma and Masilingi have shifted their focus to the 200-metre race, which has no testosterone limit, but Semenya has been embroiled in a legal battle during which WA told the CAS that she was “biologically male,” even though she had been assigned female at birth and has identified as female since, according to AP. 

It’s also worth noting that some of the side effects for the drugs that these women would have to take in order to compete in their events are “hepatitis,” “liver injury,” and resistance to the drug itself, meaning that they could literally become unaffected by the drug that they’d be forced to take in order to compete. This hasn’t happened yet, but fucking imagine what WADA would say then. “Yeah, sorry, you’re banned from running because your body makes too much testosterone naturally and even though we don’t care about that in any other sport and even though you took drugs to lower the testosterone that don’t work anymore, you’re still gonna have to find a way to lower your testosterone.” Jesus Christ. 

And by the way, regulating an athlete’s natural advantages is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. They don’t make baseball pitchers play first base because their arms can move unnaturally fast, or force star hitters to wear drunk goggles because they can see 80% better than the average person. They don’t make Kawhi Leonard play with mittens cause his hands are fucking massive and they didn’t bash Eli Manning’s head into a wall a couple times before he made his NFL debut just cause he’s never had a concussion. This rule doesn’t make any fucking sense no matter how you look at it. It straight up confounds me that they did this. 

Another fucked up case is Brianna McNeal, the 2016 100-metre hurdles champion who was handed a five-year ban in part because she didn’t hear the doping official at her door two days after she had had an abortion. It was a decision she had kept private from everyone but her husband and her spiritual advisor, but she was forced to reveal it in the course of the Athletic Integrity Unit’s investigation, which McNeal alleges was overly invasive and insulting, stating that officials “chastised her for seeing a spiritual adviser instead of a psychiatrist while she was suffering from depression after the abortion.” The New York Times characterized the AIU’s investigation as searching for “even a crumb of wrongdoing,” which is probably the most opinionated I’ve ever seen them let a reporter be, maybe ever, so that says something about how fucked this is. 

Brianna McNeal, who was banned from being a professional athlete for being bad at paperwork...

So far we’ve had a story about a rule that doesn’t make sense, a story about a rule that was invented to target a specific athlete, and a story about doping officials hunting down athletes for the smallest mistakes. But even when a rule doesn’t exist, Olympic officials find a way to be pricks about it. Earlier this month, the International Swimming Federation (Fina) banned a black-owned brand of swim caps designed for natural black hair. The brand, Soul Cap, had partnered Alice Dearing, an Olympic athlete from Great Britain and the first black woman to represent her country in the pool. As a reason for its decision, Fina said the caps “did not fit the natural form of the head,” which sets off all my racist alarms, and that to their “best knowledge the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require … caps of such size and configuration.” How many members of the international swimming regulator, to your knowledge, have black hair? Just if you had to guess...

Okay I think we’re just about butting up against head through screen territory now, so let me wrap this up. The point that I’m trying to make here is that sports governing bodies are so enthralled with maintaining their pristine “level playing field” that they repeatedly throw empathy out the window and make unfair judgements out of reverence for rules that are even more arbitrary than rules normally are. In real life, I can understand the argument that exceptions can’t be made because of the rule of law or whatever, but there is no argument for not making an exception when there are literally no consequences. Sports governing bodies scrap old rules and make up new ones sometimes even in the time it takes for the next event to roll around, and you’re trying to tell me that it would be impossible to send Sha’Carri Richardson to Tokyo because “the rules are the rules????” Joe Biden really said that about her situation and Obama’s government broke the law like a thousand times while he was vice president — let her smoke a damn joint in mourning, have some fucking decency. 

One more thing because I was just reading back through this article (yep just as stupid and frustrating as I thought it would be, I’m slowly losing my mind) and I didn’t even do this on purpose but you guys notice how every single person who got fucked over in this story is a black woman? You know you’re on the right side of history when the rules you ‘have no choice but to uphold’ consistently disadvantage this group. Hop in line Olympics, you’re racist and sexist too, just like all the other things we were taught to revere as children. I hate it here. 

1 comment

  • Bureaucrats be wilding!!!

    Angry Swimmer on

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