Feeling cheated is one of the worst things a person can feel, especially if you've gone to great lengths to prepare. At the height of competitive sports, unfortunately, the need to win has overshadowed fair play far longer than it should have. In fact, doping in sports still exists, albeit far less than in the past.
With world class labs and protocols in place, most global sports governing bodies have gone to great lengths to "clean up" their competitions. Yet, it's almost become commonplace to see a doping scandal on the news.
Today, we take a look at some of the biggest doping scandals in sports history, the books that were written, and the aftershocks felt in these sports as a result.
The Doping Scandals
Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Olympics
Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson crossed the finish line in world record time at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, flexed his bulging muscles before ecstatic crowds, and was swiftly revealed as a stanozolol-fueled charlatan.
Johnson was a Jamaican-Canadian sprinter dominating the 100m event heading into the '88 Olympics. He held the world record and was the clear favorite for gold. In the highly anticipated 100m final in Seoul, Johnson blitzed the field with a stunning world record time of 9.79 seconds. However, immediately after, he tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid.
Johnson was stripped of the gold medal three days later. It was a massive embarrassment for Canada and a major scandal worldwide, as Johnson had been previously lauded as a model athlete. Under scrutiny, Johnson admitted he had been using steroids for much of his career, including the 1987 season when he set the 100m world record. All his records were scrubbed from the books.
Johnson received a 2-year ban from competition. He tried to make a comeback after the ban but never regained his dominance and retired in disgrace. The scandal was seen as a wake-up call, leading to much more stringent drug testing procedures. But it damaged the credibility of track and field greatly.
The Home Run Race
I remember watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chase Roger Maris' home run record in 1998. I was 14 years old, and ESPN used to interrupt programming to bring you each guy's live at-bat. For a sport that was losing interest, the McGwire/Sosa summer was a shot in the arm for baseball.
Years later, both admitted to using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) during that season, meaning the record was fueled by doping.
Barry Bonds was one of the greatest players ever when he began using PEDs. He smashed the career home run record once held by Hank Aaron while blatantly doping in the early 2000s, according to credible accounts. Unlike McGwire and Sosa's feel-good chase, Bonds was unpopular and his joyless pursuit of records was shrouded in steroid allegations. Still, Bonds always denied knowingly taking PEDs.
Investigations, confessions and whistleblower revelations confirmed all three players knowingly took steroids and human growth hormone for years. The period came to be known as the "Steroid Era." Their drug use fueled suspicion of any player who excelled during that period and cast doubt on many power hitting records. Some baseball writers refused to induct confirmed PED users into the Hall of Fame.
The three players stained their legacies and the sport with their cheating. However, MLB also shared blame for turning a blind eye to doping during the lucrative home run boom.
Russia implemented a sophisticated, elaborate state-run doping program starting in the late 2000s to boost results across many sports like athletics, weightlifting, swimming, and more. Hundreds of Russian athletes were allegedly involved in taking cocktails of steroids, swapping out dirty urine samples, and working with intelligence agents to avoid detection. The program went beyond individual cheating into coordinated corruption.
Whistleblowers like Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov exposed the vast state-sponsored doping, leading to major investigations like the 2016 McLaren Report which confirmed institutionalized doping. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency was shown to be complicit, while dirty lab samples and other evidence were intentionally destroyed to hide the drug use.
Russia was banned from subsequent Olympics, including Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, though some Russian athletes who proved they were clean were allowed to compete. The elaborate doping program and coverup efforts ran all the way up to government ministries as Russia sought international prestige through Olympic medals. But it led to widespread bans.
Russia's institutionalized Olympic doping program was unprecedented in scale and sophistication. It embodied corruption at the highest levels in pursuit of athletic glory and severely damaged Russia's international sporting reputation.
Lance Armstrong's doping scandal is one of the biggest in sports history due to his high profile and vehement denials before being exposed.
Armstrong dominated professional cycling in the early 2000s, winning 7 consecutive Tour de France titles while recovering from cancer. He adamantly denied doping accusations. Eventually, an extensive USADA investigation in 2012 conclusively proved Armstrong had used EPO, steroids, testosterone and other banned substances throughout his career with the aid of a sophisticated doping program.
Former teammates testified Armstrong coerced them into doping and that it was rampant throughout the US Postal cycling team. He allegedly intimidated people into staying silent about it. After years of staunch denials, Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey in 2013 about his extensive drug use, confirming he had lied repeatedly during his historic run in the Tour de France.
Armstrong was stripped of his Tour titles and received a lifetime competition ban. He was also removed from the board of Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded which faced damage from the scandal. The revelations not only confirmed Armstrong's cheating, but also wider drug use problems cycling failed to curb during Armstrong's era. It highlighted flaws in drug testing regimes. Armstrong's aggressive pursuit of fame and fortune at any cost, combined with his willingness to destroy lives and reputations along the way, make this one of the most shocking doping scandals ever.
The East Germans
The East German doping program during the 1970s and 80s was a disturbing state-sponsored system that abused thousands of athletes.
East Germany's socialist government ran an extensive doping regime to build sporting prestige. Coaches and doctors administered anabolic steroids, amphetamines, hormones, and other experimental drugs to thousands of young athletes, often without consent. The mastermind was Dr. Manfred Ewald who spearheaded doping in conjunction with Stasi secret police to control athletes. Widespread doping started as early as 1974, especially among female swimmers, some as young as 11.
Many suffered significant health consequences later in life like infertility, liver damage and cancer. For the state, medals took priority over ethics, health, and informed consent. Though estimates vary, it is believed over 10,000 athletes were given performance enhancing drugs, peaking in the 1976 and 1980 Olympics where East Germany topped medal counts.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, records confirmed the enormous scale of the doping. Many officials and doctors were convicted for systematically drugging athletes, often by spiking food. The revelations exposed a devastating abuse of trust and power. Athletes saw records wiped and reputations tarnished, while carrying lifelong scars from participating in the doping machine against their will or without understanding the risks.
While the cases of Johnson and Armstrong were bad, when entire governments are behind the scandals, you have a major problem.
I wrote a previous article about Ethics and Sports, and even at the highest level of competition, winning trumps everything in these cases.
At the most fundamental core, we have an moral obligation as fans, coaches, and players to promote fair play in sports. And while I'd like to think the worst is behind us, there will always be bad actors trying to outmaneuver the system.
John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
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