The Russian athlete doping scandal first surfaced on the eve of the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games in 2016. In December 2017, after a lengthy and much-delayed investigation, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced a controversial Russian Olympic ban, barring dozens of athletes from representing their country at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The more than 12-month investigation uncovered an unprecedented, state-backed doping program. The ruling stated 169 carefully screened Russian athletes could compete under a neutral Olympic flag.
The International Paralympic Committee also decided to ban athletes from competing in the Pyeongchang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, which starts on March 8. Citing anti-doping reforms, the committee stated select Russian athletes will be able to compete in alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, snowboard and wheelchair curling, also under a neutral Olympic flag, since their national committee remains suspended.
One week before the February 9th opening ceremony, the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned lifetime Olympics bans for 28 of those competitors, after appeals. The CAS ruled there was insufficient evidence the athletes, including some medal winners, breached anti-doping regulations at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The ruling also meant the athletes’ 2014 results were reinstated and they could ask to participate in this year’s Winter Games. On February 5, the IOC refused the request of 13 athletes and two coaches “cleared of doping” to attend the Pyeongchang Games, but left the door open for further debate. Just hours before the opening ceremony, the CAS made its final decision, upholding the ban on a total of 47 Russian athletes and coaches.
The Serious Issue of Doping in Sports
Russian athletes have earned a reputation for widespread doping, however, the use of anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS) and other banned substances is rampant and has plagued amateur and professional sports since the 1950s. Famed bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to using steroids when they were still legal, while other high profile athletes have been caught and punished for illegal use. Among the most notable are cyclist Lance Armstrong in 2012, Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez in 2009, and Olympian Marion Jones who admitted in federal court in October 2007 that she started using steroids before the 2000 Sydney Games. As a result, the IOC officially stripped Jones of three gold and two bronze medals and erased her Olympic records. The repercussions of taking steroids far exceed public humiliation and loss of endorsements. Steroid abuse can result in a wide range of symptoms and long-term health issues.
Signs of Steroid Abuse
Steroid abuse symptoms are often categorized as short- and long-term or adverse and chronic. Acute adverse side effects include headaches, acne, fluid retention, gastrointestinal irritation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, jaundice, menstrual abnormalities, and hypertension. Neuropsychiatric and behavioral side effects include paranoia (e.g., excessive or unreasonable jealousy), extreme irritability, delusions (false beliefs or ideas), impaired judgment, manic or hypomanic symptoms (e.g., extreme mood swings), depression and suicidal tendencies. Aggressive behavior, known as “roid rage”, can lead to severe outbursts of anger and violence.
In addition to neuropsychiatric and behavioral effects, long-term AAS use can result in negative effects on reproductive, genitourinary, hepatic, musculoskeletal, endocrine, renal, immunologic, cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and hematological systems. A 2017 study confirmed the long-held theory chronic AAS use can result in liver injuries, some of which can be life-threatening. The study concluded athletes often engage in polydrug abuse, which likely contributes to AAS toxicities. Moreover, concurrent abuse of AAS with other illicit substances makes it hard to ascertain a causal relationship between a specific substance and its consequent adverse effects. In addition to athletes who intentionally abuse steroids, consumers are at risk of unknowingly taking diet supplements containing designer steroids, readily available for purchase on the internet.