RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The first full weekend of Olympic action has been very exciting if you’re into drugs. Weightlifter Antonis Martasidis tested positive for banned substances (his expected defense: “I’m a weightlifter!”) and so did an unnamed Greek athlete. A report will apparently implicate the head of the Kenyan Olympic track and field team for taking bribes to tip people off about upcoming drug tests. And by the end of the weekend, Russia could be banned from this year’s Paralympics for doping.
Yes, the Paralympics.
I am generally a trusting person, except when it comes to politicians, lawyers, coaches, car dealers, car mechanics, insurance agents, those bathroom attendants in fancy restaurants who expect you to pay a buck for handing you a towel, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, editors, sportswriters, women and men. But it’s getting very hard to trust Russian athletes.
As you know by now, Russia was caught engineering a massive state-sponsored doping program, leading many (though not me) to scream that the whole country should be banned from these games. And the previously scandal-free tennis star Maria Sharapova has been suspended for a drug violation. And of course, there was that appalling era when a Russian cyclist cheated to win the Tour de France seven straight times while he was sponsored by their national postal service. Oh wait, that was an American. Anyway.
The question is not just how low the Russians will go; it’s how low you think they will go. For example: Suppose you arrived at Riocentro 3, the table-tennis venue, to watch a Russian named Maria Dolgikh, who is ranked 40th in the world. Would you see a 5' 9", 137-pound, 29-year-old trying her best, or would you think she was on drugs?
You might think I am joking. You might think, “Oh, come on. It’s TABLE TENNIS.” But this is an essential truth of life: If enough people care enough to try, then some people will care enough to cheat.
Dolgikh lost to a 43-year-old Australian named Jian Fang Lay. It was an epic seven-game match, and highly entertaining if you were not a.) focused on Brazilian Lin Gui at the next table, as most fans were, or b.) only watching table tennis because you got lost looking for air hockey. I talked to Lay briefly after her victory, and she said Dolgikh seemed to struggle against Lay’s unusual style, to which I thought: “Of course, because THERE IS NO DRUG FOR STRATEGY.”
Is this fair to Dolgikh? Of course not. She probably is just a 5' 9", 137-pound 29-year-old trying her best. And table tennis is like every other Olympic sport: Even the worst players are astonishingly good. Every serve is a combination of deception and speed that you just didn’t see at the table in my basement when I grew up. Watching players warm up is mesmerizing.
And yet … well, if you think table tennis is immune from performance-enhancing drugs, you’re fooling yourself. It’s a sport of quick reactions, fitness and and agility; of course those skills can be enhanced. In lawyer Richard McClaren’s World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned report about Russia, there is a table showing “disappearing positive test results.” One was from a table tennis player. Another was from a sailor.
In 2010, German table tennis player Dimitrij Ovtcharov was suspended for using the banned substance clenbuterol, though he appealed and won. (Ovtcharov claimed he ate contaminated meat. Hey, I buy it. This is my fifth Olympics, and I’m pretty sure I ate contaminated meat at every one of them.)
In 2002, American Barney Reed, Jr. tested positive for an elevated level of 19-norandrosterone, an anabolic agent. Did America hold it against him? Well, let’s just say Barney Reed, Jr. is not a household name today.
Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov promised the Russians will be “the cleanest team” in Rio. Of course, in 2010, Zhukov called the fight against doping a “major priority” and promised that, “Sochi 2014 has given Russia a strong determination to show zero tolerance.” Well, maybe he means it this time. Right.