Shining through scandals

Shining through scandals

Doping issues may have knocked sport to its knees but it will continue to draw fans

Shining through scandals

Houston hosted the world weightlifting championships last year. The sport’s greatest athletes, many Olympians among them, hoisted staggering amounts of weight above their heads, and the fans there oohed and aahed.

Could those fans believe what they were seeing? No, not really. The feats looked superhuman. There was good reason for those fans not to believe their eyes.

Seventeen of the weightlifters who competed in Houston — including many medal winners — tested positive for banned drugs. So what the fans were seeing wasn’t a credible sport at its best. What they saw was a lot of cheating.

Did that matter? Maybe not.

“The die-hard weightlifting fans, they’re well aware of what’s going on, so none of it was a shock to them,” said Chris Massey, the director of events at Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “The other people were just out for the entertainment value of it. I don’t even know if any of them have connected the dots.”

This applies to Olympic sports more broadly now, in the wake of extraordinary claims by the former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, who said a state-run doping program assisted dozens of dirty Russian athletes during the 2014 Sochi Games.

Those claims drove anti-doping officials to re-examine urine samples from previous Olympics, and they said there have been 31 new positive tests from the 2008 Beijing Games so far.

None of that helps the marketing for the Rio Olympics, which are just 79 days away. Tainted or not, the Rio Games now have a doping cloud over them, adding to the Zika virus cloud and political unrest cloud that already hover over Rio de Janeiro. Still, perhaps inexplicably, it’s unlikely many people will turn away from the competitions.

It’s the same reason fans can be outraged that football has left some former players with severe brain trauma yet still slip on their favorite team’s jersey and watch “Monday Night Football.” With entertainment, fans don’t often let morality ruin their fun.

We know this from experience. The Olympics have survived scandals like this one before. East Germany’s doping machine. Ben Johnson’s failed drug test.

Remember the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative scandal, more commonly known as BALCO? It was a steroids case that ensnared some of the biggest names in track and field, including multiple Olympic gold medal winner Marion Jones.

Yet spectators still tuned in to the Summer Olympics in 2004, in Athens, and in 2008, in Beijing. And more people than ever watched the Olympics in 2012, held in London. It was hard to be sour about things, especially when NBC, with its sentimental narratives, often makes the athletes seem so heroic.

Think back to baseball during the home run boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Big personalities. Big biceps. Big hits that sent baseballs rocketing over walls. Fans clamored for it, even though the show was fueled by performance-enhancing drugs. Even in recent years some of the game’s top players have been caught doping. Fans expressed their disapproval. Some shrugged. But they continued to fill seats that filled stadiums, and kept watching games on TV.

Cycling is one sport that shows lasting damage from doping.

Drug scandals over the past two decades knocked the sport to its knees. Nearly every top rider was implicated. Tour de France jerseys were stripped. Sponsors fled. Teams folded. Even now, as the sport continues to rebuild, it’s striving to win back the public’s confidence.

In 2007, two German public televisions pulled their broadcasts of the Tour de France because they didn’t want to televise a sport fueled by pharmacology.In 2012, when Lance Armstrong was exposed as an unrepentant doper, even casual observers considered the sport to be a complete fraud.

Jonathan Vaughters, who was one of Armstrong’s teammates and one of the people who helped reveal Armstrong’s sophisticated doping program, said he was exasperated. The truth had come out about doping, which was good for clean athletes, he said. But there was a painful downside. “The first people you hurt if you stop watching a sport because of doping are the clean athletes in it,” he said. “You are literally pointing a gun at those athletes and are shooting them in the head, when they don’t deserve it.”

It can take years, maybe more than 10 years, Vaughters said, to eradicate doping and change the culture of a sport, and everyone in the sport and watching it has to weather it.

“It’s a time when athletes are guilty until they are proven guilty, even though they are not guilty — and that might not be fair, but that’s how it’s going to be,” he said. “It’s really bad and makes everything look bad in the interim. But in the long run, it really does help clean athletes. You just have to keep pounding away in the right direction, and that credibility will come back.”

A lot of Olympic sports need to pound away at doping now. The sport hit hardest so far by investigations into Russia’s doping program is track and field. But it’s not alone. Athletes in bobsledding, weightlifting and cross-country skiing have been implicated. The former Russian lab director said the entire women’s ice hockey team was part of the state-run programme in Sochi. Who knows yet if the list goes on — and on.

The opening ceremony in Rio is scheduled for August 5. 

Should fans expect fact or fiction? These days, it could be safest just to suspend disbelief.

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