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The fundamental Olympic problem

Aside from doing grumpy postings like this one about them here, I am pretty much ignoring the Olympics. But today, while waiting for a BBC Radio 3 piano recital, I heard the BBC Radio 3 version of the news. And one of the big stories was that Lord Moynihan (he is some kind of British Olympic big cheese) was defending a gold medal winning Chinese swimmer against accusations of having been drugged. The margin of her victory in a swimming race was, according to a defeated American coach (so said Radio 3), “troubling”.

And there you have what is surely the fundamental problem of the Olympics.

I loath the Olympics for all sorts of reasons. The invading army of officious and corrupt imperialists telling me and my fellow Londoners how to run our own city, the costs that will be spread over lifetimes (including to those who have even less interest in the games than I do), the cock-ups caused by corruption, and by it being organised by a different bunch of organisers each time, the shameless statist propaganda in the opening ceremony (the entirety of which I have recording (sensing political rucki) but I have yet to watch the damn things and probably never will), etc. etc. etc.

But this drugs accusation, whether in this particular case true or baseless, gets to the heart of the problem with the Olympics.

I, and millions of others, just do not trust Olympic athletic victories any more. The wider the margin of them, the more we all distrust them.

After all, science and technology have progressed at a dizzying rate in recent decades, in all other areas where it has profited anybody to make such progress. Why not in athlete doping, in ways that doping detection cannot detect?

In Formula 1 car racing, everyone who pays attention knows that being and having the best driver is only half of the battle, if that. F1 is a struggle between engineers and designers, not just drivers. If your engineers fall behind, having the two best drivers on the planet driving your loser cars won’t win you the championship. Which is fine, because all of this is right out there in the open. No secret is made of any of this. One of the purposes of Formula 1 is to enable car makers to boast about their enthusiasm and excellence at technology, and maybe F1 even encourages regular car-making technology to get better.

In athletics, however, the collision between the idea of individuals racing, or throwing or jumping or whatever it is, and individuals being treated more like racing cars by teams of medical experts, is not nearly so happy. In fact it pretty much destroys the entire purpose of the exercise. I mean, what the hell is the point of winning a gold medal, or for that matter winning a bronze or coming seventh, if every second person you subsequently meet (even if too polite to say so to your face) reckons you probably cheated?

The problem is that whereas last year’s F1 cars are just scrap metal, or perhaps revered but still inanimate museum pieces, Olympic athletes have to spend several more decades actually living inside the bodies that were once mucked about with by Olympic doctors, so you probably can’t just allow the doctors to let rip, with any kind of biotechnology they can devise. Remember all those miserable ex-Soviet swimmers and gymnasts. But if you don’t allow this, or if you allow some biotechnology but not other kinds, you have to find some convincing way of policing it all. As of now, they are nowhere near to doing that convincingly.

And one thing’s for sure. None of these problems are going in any way to diminish, in the decades to come.

At present, my sport of choice, cricket, has no such doping problems, or if so they keep them very firmly under wraps. Not long ago, as I wrote about here, South Africa beat England at cricket. England didn’t just lose, they were humiliated, at home, in what everyone expected to be a very closely fought game. Yet nobody in cricket believes that this extraordinary South African triumph was caused by anything more complicated than the South African team playing much, much better than the England team did. Nobody called this result “troubling”, in the way that American coach meant it. Nobody is now suggesting that the South African team had been using illegal substances. They just batted far better and bowled far better, because … well, because they just did.

Cricket certainly has its cheating problems, but they are to do with people cheating by not trying hard enough, not by off-the-field medical wizards trying too hard.

25 comments to The fundamental Olympic problem

  • Jake Haye

    Consensus among the Commentistas seems to be that the socialist policies promoted in the opening ceremony are now “settled science” and therefore non-political.

  • I think one of the factors in this is that we (as a TV-watching public) don’t want to see anyone die or get maimed. One of the big reasons F1 got so much safer from the 1970s onwards was that it had become big business with sponsors. What sponsor wants to have his product associated with a death?

    But if a pharmaceutical enhanced performance without causing death or injury could we really object? Then it just becomes a way of doing better not unlike training or eating the right food.

    Cricket and football have the advantage that drugs (so far) don’t seem to have an effect on skill. Or maybe they’re a bit casual when it comes to testing.

  • Stephen Willmer

    I see no distinction between an athlete employing the services of a dietician or nutritionist, or whatever they’re called, and the services of a chemist.

  • David A. Young

    So long as they know what they’re getting into, I’m pretty comfortable with the idea of professional athletes working the bugs out of new biotechnologies for the rest of us. And speaking as a fan of American football, the prospect of watching 8 foot tall, 600 pound linemen smashing into each other with ground-shuddering force sounds…quite entertaining.

  • RAB

    Oh let them take as many drugs as they like, it’s their bodies after all. Nobody’s really interested in 90% of the Olympic non sports anyway, that’s why they are sponsored and only watched every four years.

    I seem to recall a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers cartoon from my youth, where drugs were a positive boon to sporting achievment. Ah here it is…


    Wouldn’t like that sort of thing creeping into Cricket though would we, Michael, Brian ? 😉

  • Petronius

    While I am no expert in F1 racing i might point out that the US NASCAR circuit the rules go to great pains to make sure the cars are as evenly matched as possible. The idea is to show off the skill of the driver, and in theory the better driver could choose a vehicle at random and still win.

  • Paul Marks

    At work I (obviously) do not watch television or use a computer.

    But I do listen to the radio and I have searched around for a radio station with the least games nonsense on its news broadcasts.

    The station that wins (out of government and privately owned stations) is BBC Radio Three.

    So you are clearly listenting to the best station.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course Radio Three also has rather few news broadcasts – but that is fine, as I can catch up with the general news when I get home.

  • Antoine Clarke

    To those who argue “their bodies to themselves,” just like eugenics and abortion, you are rather assuming that the individual has a choice. But the Olympics are the ultimate politicization of sport, as Hitler realised.

    In the human cloning laboratories attempting to recreate the Epsilons of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, swimmers/sprinters/jumpers will be designed before birth for the glory of the State. My guess is it’s already underway. I look forward to “anomalies” where an apparently female athelete of 16 appears to have been born three years ago and has no belly button.

    Not quite the same thing as decriminalising recreational drugs.

  • Jim

    There are drugs that can enhance your cricketing performance. A Yorkshire based friend of mine tells the story of a lad who used to play for his team. He was no great shakes as a batsman, but one year was put on prescription drugs for mental health issues. That season he proceeded to smash bowling attacks to all parts of the ground with great abandon. His mental state improved during the winter and by the next season he was no longer on the drugs. His batting reverted to its previous mediocre level, never to reach the drug fuelled heights again.

  • BigFatFlyingBloke

    There are drugs that can enhance your cricketing performance.

    That’s certainly true. Medication for ADHD and related things is strictly controlled by Major League Baseball for that reason. It’s also why popping greenies was so popular with baseball players since, well, forever and widely extolled in various books (such as the excellent Ball 4). It kept them alert and focused both at bat and in the field during long games and a long season. Essentially what they did was allow the player to play to their natural physical ability all the time rather than increasing it such as various designed steroids are purported to do.

  • Stephen Willmer

    Antoine Clarke makes an interesting point about assumptions. Hmm. It’s a point that makes me reflect on just how much development, in all walks of life, by comparison with the current position, there would be without state championing of x, y, z. Motorways are my favourite example of this, not least because those who planned them were the intellectual ancestors of those who now deplore them.

  • Bruce Hoult

    @Petronius it’s common for the same sport to have both “one design” and “formula” categories.

    In yachting you have the various Olympic classes (the boats are supposed to be identical), and the America’s cup (which has a formula trading off waterline length, sail area, keel depth and other things). Even in the narrower category of match racing, the same teams compete in formula boats and at other times in identical boats which they rotate between teams on a race by race basis.

    In gliding we have things such as “standard class” in which you aircraft must be able to pass between two poles 15m apart, weigh no more than 750 kg, and have no movable surfaces other than ailerons, elevator, and rudder. There are virtually no other restrictions on design, materials, or cost.

    Formula 1 is, pretty obviously, a formula class, in which designers make the best car they can within the restrictions of the (very complex) formula. Unusually, the formula used changes from year to year, ostensibly to reduce costs or improve safety. Every time the formula changes it provides an opportunity for clever engineers to find an optimum design that no one else thought of. After several years with the same formula the cars tend to converge to similar designs.

  • Tedd

    The idea is to show off the skill of the driver, and in theory the better driver could choose a vehicle at random and still win.

    Indy car racing is similar, in that regard. Personally, I favour that, and I’ve long thought it a shame that the World Drivers’ Championship is primarily determined by factors that have almost nothing to do with driving. (There’s no doubt in my mind that Schumacher’s skill and dedication as a test driver was a key factor in the technical advantage of teams that he drove for. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the championship is, in general, determined by the caliber of the team, not the driver.)

    But it appears that I’m in the minority among F1 fans. Most F1 fans I know are, if anything, more attracted by the technology than they are by the driving.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I take recreational substances, so that the rest of you seem interesting! What’s your excuse?

  • Ian Bennett

    Brian said:

    F1 even encourages regular car-making technology to get better.

    Not just car-making technology.

    F1 is, as noted, a contest between designers, engineers and strategists as much as between drivers, but note that many of the current drivers came through the ranks of GP3 and GP2 where the cars are, as in Indy, effectively identical. Part of the purpose of the so-called “lower formulae” is to spot future F1 drivers.

    As for the Olympics, they have about as much connection to sport as the Eurovision Song Contest has to music. The medals appear to go to whichever country’s nationalized sporting industry is best at defeating dope tests. [/cynic]

  • GlenDorran


    Yes, and you should look at the number of pro tennis players who have been ‘diagnosed’ with ADHD and therefore get medical exemptions allowing them to use the likes of Ritalin. At the last count there were well over 150 players with an exemption!

    My eyes have been opened to performance enhancing drug use over the last few years. I think it’s fair to say that to be an elite sportsman these days you are more likely than not to be doping.

    Not a lot can be done about it – the incentives are there, so the anti-doping agencies will always be lagging behind in catching the latest doping techniques.

    Indeed, an anti-doping official has said that they onky expect to catch the ‘dopey-dopers’ at the Olympics, i.e. those who don’t have the money (or state support) to get the best doping or those who screw up their doping regime timings and get caught.

  • RDC

    So all the other sports are “dirty”, Brian, but your favorite is clean?

    SF writer Dean Ing wrote a short story 30 years ago about a future Olympics featuring swimmers with proto-blowholes and flipper-like feet (like 17-year old, 6’1″ American swimmer Missy Franklin’s size 13 feet!) and boxers with no pain receptors.

  • David A. Young

    @Antoine Clarke: I’m not sure what your point is. These people you’re referring to are already slaves of the state. Do you believe their masters will give any concern to whatever rules on such matters are eventually adopted? And if, as you say, it’s probably “already underway,” why should these technologies be denied to people who actually DO have the freedom to decide such matters for themselves? All that would accomplish is to cede these technologies to the sole use of those who are most likely to abuse them.

  • veryretired

    The fundamental problem with the olympics is that they are boring as hell.

  • Tedd


    I agree with what you said regarding the lower ranks that feed into F1 ensuring that the very best drivers get into F1 in the first place. And that is a good thing, in itself.

    But the fundamental problem with F1 — as a means of determining the driver’s world champion — is that the variation in capability of the cars is much greater than the variation in capability of the drivers. The drivers’ championship might be better called the World Contract-negotiating Championship. But tightening the variation in the cars would then make it a less desirable way to determine the world makes’ champion.

    Ultimately, there is no way to have both the drivers’ champion and the makes’ champion decided by the same series without seriously compromising the value of at least one of the championships. Since the 80s, that compromise has gone solidly against the drivers’ championship.

  • Laird

    Well, not everything is boring, VR.

  • veryretired

    Too bad he wasn’t over Blofeld’s tank of pirhanna—

  • Ian Bennett

    Partly true, Ted, but note that Fernando Alonso leads the drivers’ championship by a considerable margin while Felipe Massa, in an identical car, is nowhere. It’s partly about who can get the best of the car he’s given, which is one of the marks of a great driver.

  • Rich Rostrom

    1) The problems with doping are not an “Olympic” problem. American baseball has been wrestling for about a generation with steroids. Several important records appear to have been set through steroid assistance. (This makes me wonder why steroids have not been used by cricketers – the games are similar.) Doping of various types has been endemic in cycling.

    2) The use of forbidden enhancements has been known in motor sports. For instance – in one circuit, there is a minimum weight requirement. A car was weighed in, and then the pit crew immediately changed all four wheels. Someone went over and examined the discarded wheels, and found they weighed a lot – they were full of sand.

    3) “Olympic athletes have to spend several more decades actually living inside the bodies that were once mucked about with by Olympic doctors, so you probably can’t just allow the doctors to let rip, with any kind of biotechnology they can devise.”

    You might be interested in the SF novel Achilles’ Choice, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. The premise is a future world in which professional athletes are free to use any enhancing technology, regardless of side-effects or long-term consequences. (The title is from the myth of Achilles, who was offered a choice by the gods: a long and happy life in anonymity, or a short and glorious life that would remembered forever.)