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Saturday, August 12, 2017

What we can Learn from Icarus , the documentary on Doping

Some of you may be thinking, “why should I watch a documentary about a guy who got paid by Netflix to experiment with doping. Screw that guy”.   At least, I came across one article on the internet with that title.  Well, the documentary goes quite a bit far beyond that, and there is much we can learn from it.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by the level of suspense the documentary elicited from the real life events unfolding during its filming. 
Cyclist/director/doping guinea pig - Bryan Fogel of "Icarus". Photo from LA Times

What starts off as a documentary on “ prove this system of testing athletes is bullshit” , quickly takes a steep u-turn as a documentary on the Russian “State Sponsored” doping system.  Bryan Fogel, the director/subject of the movie and, also, a high level amateur cyclist, begins the documentary as using himself as a test subject.  He applies the same doping protocol as Lance Armstrong to himself with a team of experts.  Bryan Fogel also enlists the head of the Russian doping lab, Dr Grigory Rodchenko, to consult on his doping protocol such that Bryan will be able to pass all tests.  Again, this is all under the guise of doing a documentary to prove that competing as a doped athlete is possible and is happening, or as Don Catlin, founder of the UCLA Olympic Lab, said in regards to cyclists on the Tour De France “they were all doping, every single one of them.”

As the documentary progresses it occurs around the same time WADA launches an independent doping investigation into the Russian Anti-doping authorities.  Suddenly, Grigory finds himself in the midst of the scandal, whilst another Russian doping official winds-up mysteriously dead from a “heart attack”.  Bryan Vogel is, now, Gregory’s only contact outside of Russia who can help him.   Fogel brings Grirgory to the USA, where Grigory is at risk of being assassinated by Russian authorities and also at risk of being prosecuted by the US Government. Long story short, Grigory alleges that the Russian doping system goes all the way up to Putin with “99%” of athletes doping.
Interestingly, parallels are drawn between the book “1984” and Grigory’s situation of “doublethink”. Some parallels are also drawn between Grigory and Edward Snowden, with the USA and Russia in opposite roles.  Grigory talks about “doublethink”, an act of having two jobs that effectively cancel eachother out- creating sensitive tests to catch dopers and having the responsibility to protect top athletes from testing positive.

Ok, now for why weightlifters or any drug tested athlete might care about watching this movie:

 What did we learn from Bryan Fogel’s experience?
After doing several months of doping, Bryan enters a major amateur race in France.  In part due to a mechanical failure on his bike, he finishes lower than the year before when he competed 100% clean.

What this shows is doping is not a magic bullet. His experiment was to show whether doping would make him an overnight Lance Armstrong—and it didn’t.  There are still many factors that make someone a winner- training, length of doping, dumb luck, genetics.

Recent doping positives at national level weightlifting competitions proves that point. There have been multiple cases of athletes placing far outside the medals who are caught doping.  Many of these athletes started off competing in CrossFit competitions,  a sport which does not have the same resources as USAW to randomly test athletes.  In effect, they took a crack at weightlifting, used drugs, and still registered a less than mediocre performance. 

2.       Why none of us are really that surprised that Russia had state sponsored doping?
Doping has been around before it was doping. 

The use of substances to enhance performance was institutionalized long before there was a WADA. It is something that is engrained on a cultural and government level in certain parts of the world.
There are stories* that Soviets initially learned to dope from top American lifters back in the 1950’s!  Now, in the 1950’s steroids weren’t illegal in the US, and there was no WADA.  The first drug testing didn’t even occur until the 1968 Olympics, and it was highly primitive and non-systemized compared to today.

While steroids gradually became something that were looked upon with ire in mainstream America, it was the Soviets who took it to a state sponsored level and perfected it.   It can be argued that doping followed the ideological models of each country- capitalism and socialism. In America, it’s something that has become privatized with wealthy elitists having the resources and access to carry it out in a highly systematic level.  In Russia, its something the state had carried out and distributed to the greater part of its best athletes.

Further, Soviet state interest in the advancement of sport was tied to the Soviet-USA space race in the 1960’s.  The Soviets, particularly Vrobiev, studied weightlifters in order to find training and recovery systems to apply to Cosmonauts for surviving space flight.  And, in a Soviet philosophical context, if it works then it is good.

Really, drug testing was not as organized as it is today enabling cultural norms of doping to persist
As for Drug testing and the formalization of what is doping, drug testing didn’t really start to get more sophisticated until the 1990’s.   So, when you hear about a legacy of doping going back to 1968 in “Icarus”,  it wasn’t the same context we know today.  

For example, in the 1980’s, the IWF and the IOC actually had two different doping lists, and before major competitions, it was announced which list was going to be used for testing.  Some substances banned by the IOC were not banned by the IWF. Up until about 1983, Testosterone was not even a banned substance by the IWF.    Today, exogenous testosterone is a banned substance. Yet, female to male transgender athletes are allowed to take exogenous testosterone, while non-trans men over 40 are not allowed to take exogenous testosterone despite probably having legit medical reasons to take it.  So, here, even today, we have cognitive dissonance surrounding permitted doping.

Anyhow, WADA wasn’t formed until the late 1990’s. And, it wasn’t until around the early 2000’s, after the BALCO scandal, where WADA declared that an athlete could be sanctioned for new unknown-substances even if they weren’t explicitly called out on the banned substance list.
In summary, there are long standing cultural dynamics and general gray areas around this subject that may explain the persistence of doping at an institutional level.
  
Does this documentary change our attitude towards Lance Armstrong ?
It is a complex situation.   According to public interviews Lance Armstrong made, he doped for years in a highly organized fashion. He doped using private resources. At the end of the day, he even beat athletes from Russia who were likely under a state sponsored program at some point in their career.  And, according to Don Catlin, everybody was on drugs.    

We don’t really know how far down the cycling ranking list we have to go to find a cyclist that wasn’t on drugs.  Note, Lance's stripped wins were never re-allocated to other cyclists on the Tour de France...

Does it change our attitude towards the recent re-tests of 2008 & 2012 Weightlifting Olympic medalists who got popped?
The interesting thing with weightlifting, is that there is far less money to be made in weightlifting than cycling. Athletes who are state sponsored are more likely to be doped because the state will pay out large sums of money for Olympic medals.  On the other hand, athletes from countries where there is little state compensation for medals are less likely to dope. 

So, popping like half of the men’s 94kg class then giving the gold medal to someone in the B session, might still be putting medals into the hands of someone who equally doped or maybe doped slightly less.  It’s underwhelming.  At the same time, there probably are actual weightlifters at the Olympic level who did not dope.

Sadly, the IOC has punished weighlifting for these slew of positives by taking away Olympic slots at the 2020 games. Its almost unfair for the IOC to single out weightlifting and reduce spots when other sports may be just as dirty, especially any sport that brings in money like cycling.

Should you still bother using Soviet Training methods as a clean athlete?
Of course!  Because doping or not, their system still works. Every weightlifting system out there is just derivative of the Soviet system. Its unavoidable.  I've had scores of clean athletes use it and improve.  You can read the "Fundamentals of the Soviet System: the Soviet Weightlifting System" here to learn why.

As Bryan Fogel shows us, doping is a factor and not a magic bullet.  There is no substitute for a solid training system.

What does this say about American weightlifters’ views on doping?

Thanks to USADA and USAW, we actually have an anti-doping system in America.  

American weightlifters don’t like the idea that someone in the session they are lifting against could be doping. 

Still, its complicated. It is a lot like the documentary , also on Netflix, “(Dis) Honesty: the Truth About Lies”.  A low level of dishonesty is almost acceptable, because there are always grey areas.  Big cheaters are not acceptable.

For example, there seems to be sympathy towards a low level of doping, especially when it blurs lines.  Our last Olympic bronze medallist  had once served a 2 year doping sanction for high levels of testosterone/pregnenolone/dhea allegedly from taking DHEA. This doesn’t phase most American lifters because , well, the attitude is that whatever may have caused her high levels of testosterone/etc is no comparison to whatever the Russians must have been on-- DHEA isn’t stanazolol.   It also helped that she actually had a chance at an Olympic medal, and we’ve waited 16 years for one.  (it’s complicated, more info here). 

On the other hand, look at the case of Charis Chan. She showed-up out of nowhere to break the American snatch record in the 53kg class, previously held by Olympic Champion Tara Nott. Public documents show she was suspended for metabolites of trenbolone.  People seemed almost happy when she tested positive for trenbolone.  The level of mocking on social media was probably due to the fact that she was sanctioned for a substance that Americans view as a “real steroid”.  And, She came from the fitness competition circles, having competed at crossfit regionals before lifting at USAW competitions.  Note, that the Crossfit Games has also suspended her for the same amount of time as USADA. 

Then, look at the case of Pat Mendes. He was the first athlete ever to be banned for Human Growth Hormone** in 2012.   
Pat Mendes - photo from USA Today.
 The sinlget he is wearing was made for the 2011 USA Pan AM Games Team by, then USAW sponsor,  Risto Sports 
There seeemed to be no outrage when this occurred, probably because he came from weightlifting.  And, weightlifting people don’t view HGH the same way as stanazolol.  A few years later, he tested positive, again, while competing for Brazil**; it was met with a big sigh from the US weightlifting community.

 So, here we have a very complex model of Americans' views towards doping.

Where do we go from here?
Superficially, it would be simple if no one took drugs ever.

Yet, it's not so simple because there are grey areas and banned substance lists can change. 

It seems unrealistic for state sponsored doping to stop overnight, especially, when success at the olympic level can correspond to presidential approval ratings****.

Really, to see substantial change,  there would have to be both short term incentives for competing clean and short term financial disincentives for doping for all athletes of every country. 

Until then, we might as well be engaging in doublethink.


* rumors that Coach Ivan was told while studying weightlifting and training in the USSR during the 1980’s

****Grigory suggests that Putin wanted a good showing in Sochi , as it would go on to increase his approval rating, giving him the political capital to invade Crimea.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Thank you for the informative post, read it with pleasure!

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