Some athletes seeking to push the boundaries of their personal performance may find it tempting to grab a competitive advantage by looking beyond their training and nutrition. And on the world’s biggest stage, at the Olympic Games, there are all too many instances of athletes who have turned to the use of a chemical advantage to gain a leg up on their fellow competitors.
Most performance-enhancing substances are banned in sports, but there are still many that either can’t be reliably detected or that have yet to be classified. In Olympics history, cheaters often face swift punishment, but sometimes, official rulings take years to resolve. Secondary drug tests may catch the offender after the competition, or arbitration may drag on. And no matter how clearly the rules are defined, debates over what actions should be punished, and how severely, endure.
Here are some of the biggest doping scandals in modern Olympics history.
1970s and ’80s: German government forces its athletes to use steroids
In the 1970s and ’80s, the East German government decided to dose its athletes with performance-enhancing drugs, most notably steroids, in the belief that sports wins would demonstrate the superiority of communism. Athletes noticed their bodies changing, yet had little choice but to go along in an authoritarian system. Some swimmers even said to each other, “You eat the pills, or you die.”
At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the East German women’s swim team won 11 gold medals out of a possible 13, contributing to an overall haul of 40 gold medals. Competitors and observers suspected the East Germans were taking steroids, but state resources were used to continue and cover up the doping program. All in all, at least 9,000 athletes were given performance-enhancing drugs. Following German reunification in 1990, some perpetrators of the doping scheme were tried and found guilty. However, this didn’t erase the price paid by athletes, many of whom had been left with lifelong health problems, including heart disease, infertility and cancer.
Lance Armstrong (USA), 2000
After his first Tour de France victory in 1999, American cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong immediately became an icon of resilience. As his popularity grew, so did the profile of Livestrong, his charitable cancer organization. But his seven Tour de France titles (from 1999 to 2005) were revoked in 2012 after years of suspicion culminated in the exposure of an elaborate, multifaceted doping scheme within Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team.
In light of that evidence, in 2013, the International Olympic Committee nullified the bronze medal Armstrong won for the men’s road time trial at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Soon afterward, Armstrong delivered his first public admission of guilt in a terse televised interview with Oprah Winfrey. He did not return the medal for another eight months, reported NPR.
Luiza Galiulina (Uzbekistan), 2012
Luiza Galiulina was a gymnast from Uzbekistan who in 2012 was set to make her second appearance at the Summer Olympics in London. After testing positive for furosemide, a diuretic that is considered to be a masking agent or weight-loss supplement, Galiulina was provisionally banned from the games. Galiulina denied knowingly taking the substance, and she said that her mother had given her a heart medication the previous month. Furosemide is also used to treat high blood pressure or congestive heart failure.
Galiulina missed a scheduled competition in artistic gymnastics due to the ban. Days later, when her backup sample also tested positive, she was removed from the Olympic Village, and afterward she was given a two-year suspension.
Marion Jones (USA), 2000
A 2003 investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), which supplied steroids to a variety of high-profile athletes, led to suspicions that American sprinter Marion Jones had used performance-enhancing drugs. But, it wasn’t until 2007 that Jones admitted to past use of a designer steroid known as “the clear.” Jones said she began using the steroid just weeks before the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Jones returned the five medals she won in those games, including gold medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter races, and the 4 x 400-meter relay. Jones had also nabbed bronze medals for long jump and the 4 x 100-meter relay. All of Jones’ race results after Sept. 1, 2000, were expunged, and she was given a two-year ban.
In 2010, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Jones’ relay teammates could keep their medals, based on rules in place at the time of competition.
Russian team, 2012, 2014 & 2016
Russian athletes have been dogged by doping suspicions at several Olympic Games, but these allegations were made worse by recent evidence of pervasive and persistent doping schemes, reported the New York Times. This includes the revelation of a sample-swapping system to protect cheating athletes, in an effort to boost Russia’s medal count when the country hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Based on a report from the World Anti-Doping Agency, the International Olympic Committee said, “all Russian athletes … are considered to be affected by a system subverting and manipulating the anti-doping system.” Yet, the organization left it to the governing bodies of each sport to determine the eligibility of individual athletes. As a result, 271 of 389 Russian athletes were cleared for competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, reported CNN.
The International Paralympic Committee banned the entire Russian Federation from competing at the Rio Paralympics.
Ben Johnson (Canada), 1988
Three days after sprinting to glory in the 100-meter final at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea, Canadian track star Ben Johnson was disqualified for a positive test for the steroid stanozolol. Johnson had set a new world record time of 9.79 seconds in the race. When the positive drug test was revealed, Johnson denied any wrongdoing, but later admitted to using a different steroid, furazabol, while training for the Olympics.
Johnson’s records were removed and the gold medal was awarded to American Carl Lewis instead. In 1993, Johnson failed a second drug test, which turned up an elevated testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio, and the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body of Track and Field, banned him for life.
Andreea Raducan (Romania), 2000
Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan was disqualified and stripped of the gold medal she won in the all-round gymnastics competition at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, after she tested positive for pseudoephedrine. The drug, a stimulant that is the active ingredient in medicines such as Sudafed, was banned by the International Olympic Committee but not the International Gymnastics Federation.
Raducan, then 16, received the pseudoephedrine in cold medication from a team doctor, who was subsequently suspended for the next two Olympic games.
Earlier, Raducan had won gold in team gymnastics and a silver in the vault. She tested negative following those events and was allowed to keep the medals. In 2015, Raducan appealed the status of her all-around gymnastics gold medal to International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach in person, but the result was not reinstated.
Tyson Gay (USA), 2012
American sprinter Tyson Gay was part of the silver-medal-winning 4 x 100–meter relay team at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. But the next year, Gay failed three drug tests in rapid succession, prompting the erasure of results dating back to the London games. Gay, then 31, immediately dropped out of competition, returned his medal and cooperated with U. S. Anti-Doping Agency investigators. He served only a one-year suspension.
In 2015, the International Olympic Committee stripped Gay’s relay teammates of their medals.
Ross Rebagliati (Canada), 1998
At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati won a gold medal in giant slalom. Rebagliati subsequently tested positive for marijuana, after which a series of Olympic boards voted to strip him of the medal. The ruling was unusual, because cannabis was not on the International Olympic Committee’s list of banned substances at the time (it was added a couple of months after the games concluded), and it is not generally considered to be a performance-enhancing drug. An appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport was quickly rewarded, and Rebagliati was able to keep his medal.
Rebagliati is now the face of a marijuana dispensary branding company.
Johann Muhlegg (Spain), 2002
Cross-country skier Johann Muhlegg competed for his native Germany in three Olympics prior to representing Spain in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Muhlegg won gold in the 30-kilometer and 50-kilometer races, and the 10-kilometer pursuit, but after a positive test for darbepoetin, a then-new prescription drug that promotes red blood cell production, he was disqualified from the 50-kilometer race.
Other tests conducted throughout the competitions had been inconclusive, but Muhlegg was eventually stripped of his other medals as well.
By Greg Uyeno