Those mascots look suspiciously performance-enhanced. (VANOC/COVAN)
The Winter Olympics start week after next. As those of us who love this stuff get ready to watch the various events of shushing, sliding, and spinning, it might be worth taking a moment to consider what these athletes -- most of whom will never gain riches and fame -- have to put up with to pursue their Olympic dreams. Outside magazine has a fascinating article about how the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has become a quasi-governmental agency whose tactics remind some people of the East German secret police. In their effort to clean up what everyone acknowledges has been an incredibly dirty sports world, WADA has upended or destroyed the careers of plenty of innocent athletes, like Zach Lund, an American skeleton competitor.
For years, Lund had been taking finasteride, an anti-baldness drug. He had dutifully informed the anti-doping agency of his use of the medication. Then in 2005, the agency added finasteride to its list of banned substances, on the suspicion (which turned out to be bogus), that the drug could be used to mask steroids. Lund didn't notice the addition to the list, even though he continued to inform the agency he was taking the drug. Then in 2006, on the day of the opening ceremonies in Turin (where Lund was a favorite to win), they ruled against Lund, barred him from competing in the Games, suspended him from competition for a year, and booted him from the Olympic Village.
There are plenty of other stories like his -- the most memorable may have been that of Andreea Raducan, a 16-year-old Romanian gymnast who found herself with a cold at the 2000 Summer Olympics. The team doctor gave her a medication that contained pseudoephedrine, the ingredient in Sudafed, which was on the banned list. Raducan went on to win the all-around gold medal, then had it stripped from her because the doctor gave her a pill to help her stuffy nose.
One of the most remarkable things the Outside article explains is the system called "Whereabouts," under which athletes in a whole range of sports have their daily movements monitored by the anti-doping agency:
In 2009, WADA adopted a beefed-up version of a controversial, far-reaching policy known as "Whereabouts." Under it, elite athletes have to tell a central authority where they will be at every hour of every day, whether they're on vacation, at home, in another country, in season, or out of season. If their plans change, they have to notify the authorities. All this information is uploaded to a central database.
Under this system, an athlete can be surprise-tested anytime, anyplace. In 2008, in Lochristi, Belgium, road cyclist Kevin van Impe was meeting with a funeral director to make arrangements for his infant son, Jayden, when a dope tester arrived and demanded that van Impe provide a urine sample for an out-of-competition test. When he asked permission to give it later, the official threatened him with a two-year ban.
Lund leans across a table in a Mexican café and makes a request: "Ask your readers how they would feel about telling someone where they are every hour of every day." Last year, when Lund was trying to fly standby, he reported his plans in accordance with Whereabouts, but then the airline called with a sudden seat opening and he forgot to refile. Lund tried to explain, but USADA refused to budge. Two more Whereabouts failures like that within 18 months and his career could be over.
Everyone acknowledges that WADA has done a great deal to diminish the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. But it's hard to hear about that and not think that it would be possible to have a system that works but doesn't treat athletes like felons on parole.