The Use of Sports for War: Between the Eagle and Prometheus

By Olga Pinheiro

From Hitler to Franco, from Videla to many other puppets, throughout history, world sporting events have become an arena for political debate. Events that would normally encourage cooperation and celebration between peoples, such as the Olympians, have frankensteined into distorted ideological disputes, particularly with the issue of doping.

Doping is the use of substances that artificially improve performance, agility, and strength, making clear the reasons for its prohibition to prevent the risk of disadvantaging athletes who abstain from using performance enhancers. Not even Einstein can explain the relativity of the doping rules depending on the country in question.

This leads to the perception that not all doping is forbidden, at least for US athletes, as shown by leaks from the group Fancy Bear, which revealed sisters Serena and Venus Williams’ (tennis players) and Simone Biles’ (gymnast) use of illegal drugs. Biles won five medals in Rio 2016, and in spite of testing positive for doping, she was not suspended. The justification was that Biles is included in the Therapeutic Use Exemptions Program (TUE) of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). 

Such a program is questioned by previous board members of WADA, such as Swiss Arne Ljungqvist, former vice president of the institution between 2007 and 2013. Regarding certain athletes receiving permission for banned substances, Ljungqvist said that, “When the therapeutic exceptions began to be discussed, very important people in charge of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) observed that if someone was really sick enough to need prohibited substances they should not even be competing.”

“Legalized doping” carries the indelible characteristic of benefitting Western athletes and, especially, athletes from the Northern hemisphere. For example, there are over 200 US athletes that were authorized to use prohibited substances for therapeutic purposes. 

In this regard, it is worth remembering the words of Danish world champion (1999) cyclist Michael Rasmussen: “A test can easily detect the presence of a substance, but when you have permission to use it, it’s another story. It all comes down to inventing an injury.”

While there was much media attention on the doping scandals of athletes from the United Kingdom, Kenya, Russia, and from Nordic ski teams, there is a distinct lack of reporting on the revelation that the United States has the most cases of doping and corruption, according to the data revealed by sports federations/press released by the Movement for Reliable Cycling (MPCC), in January of this year.

Not one of these countries received sanctions as harsh as did the Russian Athletics Federation, wherein the entire country, not individually accused athletes, was suspended from every international athletics competition. The Federation received these sanctions despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee did not find any evidence of the alleged collaboration of the Russian State with the cases of doping.

It is also striking that the start of the WADA investigation coincided with the release of a documentary by a German radio station (ARD), which exposes the testimony of a couple who testified about the alleged systematic doping among Russian athletes. Coincidentally, this couple now lives in the US.

Another main character in the “institutional doping” scandal is Grigori Rodchenkov, who was the former director of the anti-doping laboratory in Moscow and a WADA informant. With an arrest warrant in Moscow for the illicit trafficking of stimulants,  Rodchenkov moved to the United States and is currently under witness protection.

Since Russia was welcomed back into international sporting events by WADA, the president of USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency) Travis Tygart continues to urge the Olympic entities to suspend Russia on a solely political, rather than factual, basis. His enthusiasm in accusing the Slavic nation of presenting “unprecedented levels of corruption” is only comparable to his unprecedented cynicism, given that he represents an anti-doping agency of a country with most cases of doping and the most cases of corruption related to game fixing and financial negligence (according to what was disclosed by the MPCC).

Inevitably one may wonder if this is all just a dirty game and a modern-day version of the Cold War in athletic uniforms. And even the cultural industry cannot be left out; last year the Oscar for best documentary was awarded to “Icarus” by Bryan Fogel, which covered doping speculation in Russian sports. 

And when one thinks they have seen the most explicit manipulation possible, in comes WADA to further surprise you with a proposal to reform WADA into an autonomous body of any Olympic jurisdiction — that is, an entity even more conducive to the influence of other actors in the geopolitical war of international sporting events. 

In this context of instrumentalizing sports for political means, it is worth remembering that during the Olympic ceremonies, athletes carry the torch to represent the fire that the Titan Prometheus gave to humanity, challenging and awakening the wrath of the Gods.

According to the Greek tragedy, the Titan did what he did for a profound hope in the creative potential of humankind to make this flame “more than an instrument” but a means of progressing in collaboration, and thus reducing the sufferings of our species.

Because of his boldness, Prometheus was chained to a rock, with the punishment of an eagle eating his liver every night, which would grow back because of his immortality. In this story there is an archetype we see today. There are two teams in the arena. Those that lean towards Prometheus are those that still believe in the flame of peace and friendship between peoples, celebrated through athleticism, where the beauty of strength and unity represent the nations in their distinct colors and cultures. Where the demonstration of vulnerability is also an act of courage, for being preferable to perfidy.

Nonetheless, sports continue to be politicized, and the doping test becomes more relative as a result. Gimmicks continue to be deployed so that the World Anti-Doping Agency can move away from the legitimate jurisdiction of the International Olympic Committee in order to act with pseudo-autonomy, isolated from the historical credibility of a multilateral instance: it is twisted by the eagle.

The reform of WADA requires us to contemplate the shifting winds of today, coerced by interests that value the crowns of dollars, not of the laurel. The eagle that today devours the liver of the athletic spirit, is it bald? Is it American?

*This article has been published in Revista El Derecho de Vivir en Paz.

*Traducción al inglés Emily Rosenzweig

*Versión en español: derechoalapaz

www.alainet.org/es/node/201704

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