Doping in Athletics: A Conspiracy of Silence

[1] In an event little-noted outside the swimming world, the U.S. women’s 4X200 freestyle relay broke the oldest world record on the books in the Athens Olympics. The 17-year-old mark was set by the team from the German Democratic Republic and was widely viewed as tainted by the East German team’s steroid use. East German women (in some cases, girls as young as 11 years old) were given “vitamin” pills to take which were doses of steroids high enough to provide some outstanding international performances-and to cause permanent health damage to some of them.

[2] Thanks to the Athens Olympics steroid use is in the news-a shot-putter was stripped of her gold medal because of a positive drug test, and a hefty proportion of the weightlifters were similarly disqualified-and that doesn’t includes athletes who were left home because the doping was detected during Olympic Trials. Back home in the U.S. we have a number of track stars cooling their heels because of positive test results. These days it seems as if reclaiming a world record or a gold medal from athlete only results in a domino effect as others tumble from grace.

[3] A few have noted that doping allegations seem to be centered in certain sports. No doubt part of it is the nature of the sport in question. Taking steroids might make an athlete run faster and impart greater endurance in soccer, but would not provide the coordination, technique, and good teamwork needed to win. Sports in which strength and endurance are key seem to be more heavily populated with athletes who are using illicit drugs, and so weightlifting and track and field have a relatively large proportion of positive test results.

[4] A number of people have named the money available in track and field and professional sports (we like to call it “commodification”) as the culprit, but that seems at best a partial explanation. Commodification might explain why an American track star who stands to make a six-figure income off a gold medal would incorporate steroids into training, but the money available to even an Olympic-level weightlifter would be paltry by comparison. Commodification certainly has little to no bearing on why East German and (and later Chinese) swimmers would have been doping their way to world class swims. There are other, more important factors that are overlooked in making this judgment.

[5] To use performance-enhancing drugs requires a conspiracy of silence. Swimmers generally train in a team-it’s too expensive and difficult to get competition-sized pool time for just one person-and in training with each other day in and day out, they know their training partners. They know the hard work, perseverance and talent that accompany improvement. A swimmer who dropped her times suddenly without changing training or technique would be noticed by her teammates. Coaches certainly should suspect something if they are not actually responsible for doping. When Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, married to a discus thrower suspended for high testosterone levels who became her coach, dropped her times dramatically after only hovering on the fringes of international competition and won three gold medals in the 1996 Olympics, other swimmers raised doubts. More than one media account of those doubts suggested sour grapes, but when Smith was banned from competition a few years later for tampering with an out-of-competition drug test, the doubts were vindicated.

[6] The media has often cooperated in that conspiracy of silence-as athletes raise the possibility of doping, as Shirley Babashoff did at the Montreal Olympics, they are accused of jealousy or worse. Chinese sports authorities responded that Westerners were racist when doubts were raised publicly about the performance of the Chinese women in the 1996 Olympics. Two years later, a Chinese swimmer headed to the World Championships was caught with steroids in her bag, a number of swimmers failed drug tests, and the Chinese sports authorities had to admit that some of its swimmers had been using performance-enhancing drugs. Though they were careful to stress this was a few unsupervised swimmers (sound a bit like Abu Ghraib?), points out that a year’s supply of the drugs found in the swimmer’s bag is several times the salary of a coach, and far more than a swimmer would make.1

[7] Because of this need for silence, for coaches to look the other way if a swimmer improves dramatically and suspiciously, for teammates and competitors to ignore suspicions, dramatic examples of drug use seem to flourish under similar conditions. The common denominator is not money, the common denominator is violating the oldest ethical principle in the books-using the athlete as means, not and end in herself.

[8] The Chinese and East German swimmers were moving parts in a swimming machine. Youngsters were removed from home and parental supervision, their schoolwork was minimized, their training time was maximized, and they lived together to eat, breathe, and sleep their sport. Michelle Smith was eating, breathing, and sleeping swimming because she was married to her coach. The East German swimmers were not told what they were given, though many of them suspected when their physique began to change. These swimmers’ closest associations were all with people whose interest in them lay in their swimming talent. East German coaches didn’t see their 11-year-olds as women who would grow old and develop liver tumors, and they didn’t see them as potential bearers of children who could be harmed by the drugs they were given. The female swimmers must have suspected foul play when they began singing bass, but they were discouraged from questioning authority. One swimmer was quoted in a German newspaper saying “What they really wanted was our minds. They wanted us to stop questioning, to be mute.”2 They were encouraged to think of themselves as means for the greater glory of the GDR, not human beings with a potential for a life beyond swimming.

[9] This is not to say there were never doping examples outside of the three I have chosen-U.S. Swimming still has swimmers occasionally test positive, probably to the tune of one every year or two. But in swimming doping was never so widespread or so brazenly denied as in these examples. It seems not all that surprising that this occurs in countries where a sports machine is in place-athletes are not allowed to think of themselves as in possession of their own bodies. When U.S. athletes engage in doping, I want to ask two things: Where was your family, where were your friends or whoever thinks you are more than an athlete? And where were your training partners and coaches? Who participated in the conspiracy of silence which allowed you to do this to yourself?

[10] Instead of decrying that athletes are paid for their work, or that we shower rewards on those with fantastic athletic prowess, we should be asking ourselves this: What kind of communities allow its members to engage in dangerous and self-destructive behavior? Who is willing to participate in the conspiracy of silence? Who is willing to let the athlete think there that her athletic performance represents all of her human potential?

End Notes



Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.