I had no idea that the London 2012 Olympics is statistically the “dirtiest games in history”. Not a clue that a whole sheaf of medals – 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres, heptathlon, and on – have been retrospectively stripped from their winners because of the misuse of drugs such as human growth hormones and anabolic steroids. Part of the point of this monstrously gripping ten-part podcast about systemic doping is to make meticulously clear that this stuff is actually no secret. It’s been globally reported; just relegated to the back pages. And our dirtiest games might get dirtier still. Blood taken from hundreds of athletes in 2012 still sits in a Swiss laboratory, hoping for new tests to come along and post-facto catch more cheats. “That sample in the lab is like an unexploded bomb,” dooms one speaker, “ticking, ticking…”
Drugs can be bionically effective. A (clean) British sprinter observed “one guy jog around and do nothing for six weeks, and his other teammate smoking… and then run some of the fastest times in the world”. Tragically, an East German shot-putter describes being given “vitamins” by her trainer when she was only 11 (“little blue beans”), unaware it was a specially engineered and brutal form of testosterone.
Bodies metamorphose, harden, near- mutate. The whole thing is repulsively fascinating. And I kept thinking that since most athletes are extremophiles – and definitively interested in endurance – the question of drugs in sport has extra resonance. Look at what these muscles and tendons and blood and gristle can be made to do! Perhaps that’s why so many of them fall prey. It’s not just about medals, surely. The moral argument against doping is far less interesting than the macabre sci-fi-ish experiment of it all.
Obviously, the Olympics comes off very badly. Spies in labs, bootless medical commissions, meaningless victories. And we may never know the true scale of how drugged contenders were. Time to pack up the tents and go home? Adieu, all that parading about. The anthems nobody wants to sing. The insuperable arguments. The unbeloved “legacy” stadiums, the huge injections of bent cash. Athletes off their trees isn’t the half of it.
This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine