Violating Olympic Norms: A Timeless Tradition

Since December 2014, the Russian state has been accused of administering a state-sponsored doping program to athletes competing in international competitions. A report compiled by the Independent Commission established by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) ‘[…] confirmed the existence of widespread cheating through the use of doping substances and methods to ensure, or enhance the likelihood of, victory for athletes and teams.’ Moreover, that report claimed that ‘The cheating was done by athletes’ entourages, officials and the athletes themselves.’ These revelations should not come as a surprise.

Image courtesy of Svenska dagbladets årsbok 1924, © 1924, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Svenska dagbladets årsbok 1924, © 1924, some rights reserved.

There are a multitude of reasons why such acts undertaken by both Russian athletes and the Russian state should not come as a shock, the most well known being the Soviet Union’s history of state-administered doping programmes. While Soviet programmes did indeed seek to utilize illicit means, from anabolic steroids to blood doping, for international success,[1] the more fundamental truth is that athletes and the states they represent have exceeded the normative limits placed on them for much of Olympic history.

The notion of one-time Olympic requirement of amateurism, for instance, mandated that athletes participated in sport only for pleasure and recreation, and without prospect of material gain.[2] While this distinction seems clear-cut, in practice it has shown to be anything but. In the 1920s, for example, the British criticized the American system of athletic scholarships as an attempt to circumvent such requirements.[3] Later, this argument would be turned against German athletes preparing for the 1936 Olympics with state support.[4]

Even athletes who have developed reputations of Herculean proportions such as Roger Bannister (the first man to run a mile in under four minutes), Paavo Nurmi (the ‘Flying Finn’), and Emil Zátopek (the only person to have won the 5k, the 10k, and the marathon at the same Olympics) can be interpreted as being in violation of this requirement. Scholar J. Kenneth Doherty, in a 1960 article, depicted Bannister’s training regime as exceeding what could be reasonably defined as recreation, calling such a regime ‘[…] unthinkable to ordinary mortals who comprise the bulk of sports amateurs.’[5] Nurmi’s amateur status was notably suspended in 1932, with famed Finnish sports sociologist Kaveli Heinilä decreeing that Nurmi had deliberately ignored the Olympic notion of amateurism and pursued running as a full time occupation. Zátopek himself had based his training off of Nurmi’s, reportedly being allowed time to train while enlisted in the Czech army. This in no way diminishes the successes of these athletes, but rather indicates that norms regarding international sport competitions have never really matched the realities of athletes taking part in such competitions.

Since the days of those athletes, norms over Olympic participation have shifted to allow professional athletes to compete in most events while refocusing on eliminating the use of performance enhancing substances or techniques. In this regard, too, the publically espoused norms on Olympic competition differed, and continue to differ, from the actions taken by some athletes and their sponsors, as exemplified by the rampant allegations of doping in the latter half of the twentieth century.

While doping (or, indeed, violating any of the norms governing Olympic participation) goes against the stated spirit of the Olympics, such activity has been all but guaranteed for as long as the Olympics have existed. Even the ancient Olympics were notably marred by cheating and bribery as athletes sought to bring glory to their city, for which they would often receive monetary rewards or, in some cases, free meals for a lifetime. Essentially, whenever athletic success has been motivated extrinsically athletes have been accused of violating competitive norms.

That said, this issue has undoubtedly become more visible in recent years, particularly once the extent of Soviet and East German doping programs became widely known. To explain this phenomenon, the afore-mentioned Finnish sports sociologist Kaveli Heinilä compiled in the 1980s a set of 25 theses describing what he called the ‘totalisation process’ in international sport. Essentially, these theses lay out a process by which high rewards associated with winning (both in terms of financial rewards and intangible notions of prestige) encourage us all to overvalue success, which motivates more people to participate in sport, raising the level of competition and effectively mandating government support in training successful athletes. [6] Moreover, Heinilä’s theory claims that these increased levels of competition lead athletes—and the states supporting them—to develop an ethos of efficiency, increasing the likeliness that illicit means will be employed in pursuit of success.[7]

In the context of this theory—or, indeed, in the context of the Olympic history described above—the decision by some Russian athletes and, by implication, the Russian state to utilize illicit means in pursuit of athletic success seems mundane. People cheat. Given substantial motivation, people will continue to cheat and, when it is in their best interests, states will continue to aid them. That is not going to change, but the way we treat it might. While the WADA will most likely continue in its mission to eradicate illicit doping from the Olympic Games, the way the world thinks about and tries to combat doping must move into the 21st century. The decision to have UK Anti-Doping oversee the fight against performance-enhancement in the lead up to the 2016 Rio Games, which itself is an extension of an earlier decision to have UK Anti-Doping oversee drug-testing procedures in Russia, is a step forwards.

Significant change, however, may be unattainable. The enduring curse of anti-doping efforts is that only performance-enhancements that are consistently detectable can be banned. The specter of new performance-enhancing substances or new means of ‘beating’ a drug test constantly hampers efforts to host ‘clean’ Games, tempting athletes and the states supporting them to violate the spirit of the Olympic Charter for the sake of ephemeral success. The future of sport is hardly up in the air, but it remains to be seen whether the international scandal over the allegedly state-supported Russian doping programme signals a substantial change in the way athletes and states approach sports. But if the past is any indicator, it won’t.

[1] Riordan, Jim. “Rewriting Soviet Sports History.” Journal of Sports History 20, no. 3 (1993): 255.

[2] Doherty, J. Kenneth. “Modern Amateurism and the Olympic Code.” Olympic Review, no. 69 (1960): 63.

[3] Crowther, Nigel. “The state of the modern Olympics: citius, altius, fortius?” European Review 12, no. 3 (2004): 448.

[4] Krüger, Arnd. “The role of sport in German international politics, 1918-1945.” In Sport and International Politics: The impact of fascism and communism on sport, ed. Pierre Arnaud and James Riordan. London: E & FN Spon, 1998. 88.

[5] Doherty, J. Kenneth. “Modern Amateurism and the Olympic Code.” Olympic Review, no. 69 (1960): 64.

[6] Heinilä, Kaveli. “The Totalization Process in International Sport.” (1984) In Sport in Social Context, ed. Kaveli Heinilä. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä Press, 1998. 125-126.

[7] Heinilä, Kaveli. “The Totalization Process in International Sport.” (1984) In Sport in Social Context, ed. Kaveli Heinilä. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä Press, 1998. 135-136.