The dream of most athletes is to compete in the Olympics and represent their county. This leads to the most incredible collection of athletes in the world, but it also leads to the most competitive environment in the world. It is tough to make the Olympics let alone win a medal, leading to athletes and countries trying anything to gain an advantage. Unfortunately, there is a long history of doping and Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in the Olympics, and we will uncover it. Let’s look at the shady side of the Olympic Games and discuss the athletes and countries that have been at the center of these controversies.
Early Years of Doping
The use of PEDs could be traced back to the original Olympics in ancient Greece. Competitors were known to drink “magic” potions and eat various exotic meats in hopes of gaining an edge over the competition. In the early years of the modern Olympics, drugs were commonly used instead of exotic meats. During the early 20th century, athletes were discovering ways to improve their abilities by boosting their testosterone.
As the Olympics returned after World War II, it became apparent that PEDs were beginning to become a much more common practice amongst athletes. This posed a significant health risk to the athletes and jeopardized the integrity of the games and the online sportsbook. The only Olympic death related to drug use came in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen fell off his bike during a race. Jensen would later die, and the coroner’s report found that he was under the influence of amphetamine, which caused him to lose consciousness during the race. His death exposed the major drug issue prevalent in the Olympic scene, this led to federations banning PEDs, and the IOC implemented a drug ban in 1967.
The First to Get Caught
Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was the first Olympic athlete to test positive for PEDs at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. Liljenwall did not test positive for testosterone or amphetamine but rather alcohol use. He lost his bronze medal as a result. He was the only athlete to test positive for a banned substance in the 1968 Olympics; as the testing techniques and technology improved, the number of athletes who were caught cheating went up.
The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich saw a drastic increase in athletes testing positive, including a United States swimmer who won the gold medal. 16-year-old Rick DeMont won the 400m freestyle, but a post urinalysis found traces of the banned substance ephedrine, which was in his asthma medication. DeMont properly declared his asthma medication on his medical form, but the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) did not properly clear it with the IOC. DeMont was stripped of the gold medal and was barred from competing in other Olympic events. In 2001, the USOC recognized his gold medal performance in 1972, but the IOC has not overturned the ruling and refused to change the official race results.
The science of PEDs was rapidly evolving, and it created the most significant case of drug use in Olympic athletes with the East German teams from the 1970s and 1980s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, documents were discovered that exposed many athletes, primarily female swimmers, to being given steroids and other drugs by their coaches and trainers.
Girls as young as eleven years old were started on drug regimens, and American swimmer Shirley Babashoff accused the East Germans of using PEDs during the 1976 Olympics. Babashoff’s comments were dismissed and perceived as bitterness because she was the favorite in the betting odds to win gold in multiple events. But she placed second in three events, losing all three events to East German swimmers. The East German female swimming medal count went from four silver and one bronze in 1972 to ten golds, six silvers, and one bronze in 1976.
No East Germans were suspended for drug use at the time. Still, after the documents uncovered a state-sponsored drug program, many of the East German authorities responsible for the program were tried and found guilty of various crimes in Germany.
West Germany was heavily involved in a doping scandal of their own. A report titled “Doping in Germany from 1950 to today” details the West German government helping fund a country-wide doping program. The program spanned decades, and across multiple different sports, drug use was prevalent in the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
According to reports, the Soviets were also heavily involved with a doping program of their own. According to reports, KGB officers would pose as members of the IOC anti-doping authorities to undermine the testing and “save” Soviet athletes. China was another country that conducted a sanctioned doping program in the ‘90s and ‘80s.
It is fair to say that most, if not all, of the gold medal winners in the ‘70s and ‘80s, were on some sort of PEDs. These doping programs were evident in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The U.S. states protested the games and 66 other countries in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This led the Soviets and East Germany to dominate the field, two countries with massive drug programs.
Modern Drug Bans
A tremendous Olympic scandal occurred during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won the gold medal in the 100 meters, but he tested positive for anabolic steroids, he was stripped of the medal, and it was given to Carl Lewis. Before the Olympics, Lewis tested positive for a banned substance. Still, he was not banned from the games because there was leeway in determining if a specific athlete met the criteria to be banned from the games or favoritism.
In late 1999, the IOC stepped up their fight against doping as they formed the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Even with the creation of a new agency, athletes continued to use PEDs as several medalists in weightlifting, and cross-country skiing was disqualified in the 2000 Summer Olympics and the 2002 Winter Olympics. The IOC implemented the “Olympic Standard,” a new testing regime to crack down on doping, which seemed to work as only six athletes tested positive during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Despite the more strenuous tests, athletes and countries were still trying to skirt the rules. The biggest doping scandal in the modern era is the Russia controversy in the 2010s. Allegations swirled around Russia and their Olympic athletes using PEDS that the government sponsored. In 2014, a documentary aired uncovered Russian officials supplying athletes with banned substances in exchange for money. This led to a massive investigation by the IOC, WADA, and other organizations.
During the WADA investigation, Russian authorities tampered with a laboratory’s database before handing it over to investigators, which likely contained hard evidence of long-standing violations. The investigation concluded with 43 Olympic medals being stripped from Russia, and the country will not be represented in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Russian athletes are still allowed to participate in the Olympics. Still, they will compete under the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” banner, and the Olympic flag and anthem will play if a Russian athlete wins a gold medal.
The most recent “drug” issue with the Olympics centered on Team USA sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson. She gained notoriety for her flashy style and was well on her way to becoming a star at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Richardson qualified for the 100 meters with a time of 10.86 seconds but later tested positive for marijuana during a drug test. She was given a one-month ban that began on June 28, 2021, this made her ineligible for the 100-meter race, but she could still run the 4×100 relay scheduled for August 5th. However, she was not selected by the United States track and field officials, and she will miss the Olympics entirely.
Richardson stated that she used marijuana to cope with the pressure of qualifying for the Olympics and mourn her mother’s recent death. This sparked controversy as many athletes, celebrities, and media members demanded that drug testing for marijuana should be changed.
The Olympics have a long and dark history of drug use in the games. The International Olympic Committee seems to be trying its best, but science is constantly evolving, and athletes will forever try to get a leg up on the competition. The recent ban of Russia has been the biggest controversy in Olympic history. Still, there have been many more state-funded doping programs uncovered, and probably, even more, we will never know about. The Olympic Games bring eyeballs from all over the world to watch and bet on the best athletes, but the doping issue is still prevalent in the games and will likely continue.