The dark side of the Olympics: How doping has shaped the Games

Some of the most memorable and record-breaking moments in Olympic history have been shattered by doping scandals. 

But athletes using substances to enhance their performance is not new to the Games.

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs two days after he broke the world record in the men’s 100 metres. 

Seven years after the 2000 Sydney Games, American track and field athlete Marion Jones admitted to doping while competing. 

At the 2020 Olympics, the Russian Federation’s state anthem and flag will not be heard nor seen in the stadium. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned Russia from competing in Tokyo for a systemic state-sponsored doping scheme. 

Instead, Russian athletes will compete representing the Russian Olympic Committee. 

At the recent USA Olympic Trials for the 2020 Games, Sha’Carri Richardson won the 100m in a blistering time of 10.86 seconds .

She recorded one of the five fastest times of the year.

Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was left off the US team after testing positive to cannabis. (

AP: Ashley Landis


Her win in the trials was not a surprise, but the news that came after was. 

Richardson tested positive for a chemical found in marijuana and admitted to using the drug to help her grieve the recent death of her biological mother. 

Richardson’s sentence was just a month suspension but she was left of the team to compete in Tokyo. 

Instead, the American athlete will be at home preparing for Paris 2024.

Olympics and doping have increasingly become intertwined and will continue to impact the Games for years to come.

The substances of old

Since the days of Leonidas of Rhodes (the Usain Bolt of Ancient Greece), athletes have been trying to get an extra edge, especially at the Olympics. 

The original version of the Games saw athletes come together every four years to battle for fame, prestige and riches. 

Athletes at those early Games did everything they could to push the boundaries, both in the arena and off. 

Acropolis of Athens' columns remains in Athens, Greece.
The first recorded Olympics Games were held in 776 BC in southern Greece. (

Unsplash: Cristina Gottardi


Early Olympians toyed not only with good nutrition, but also with hallucinogens, alcohol, strychnine and opium.

These substances were not off limits back then, and instead were overlooked and considered to be part of the scientific method of the culture.

Some ancient athletes even tried chewing on raw animal testicles and hearts for an extra edge. 

The organisers did, however, introduce measures to ensure fair starting conditions and punished athletes caught cheating and using illegal tactics. 

The first doper caught

For many decades in the modern Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was not concerned about doping. 

The organisers were more focused on the sporting events rather than athletes using drugs. 

Modern athletes used alcohol, amphetamines and strychnine while competing in events such as marathons.

The IOC only banned the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 1967, just before the first version of random drug testing was used at the1968 Olympics in Mexico City. 

The tragic death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen at the 1960 Olympics — initially thought to have been caused by amphetamine use — had helped drive the introduction of drug testing. 

Doctors later discovered Jensen’ death was caused by heatstroke.

But anti-doping efforts continued to become an important issue in the sporting world. 

The key considerations for banning doping were to protect the health of athletes taking substances and to ensure a fair playing field.

A technician prepares an urine sample to test for doping
The International Testing Agency (ITA), an independent body, will oversee all doping controls for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. (

 Reuters: Valentin Flauraud


The testing started on a small scale, but it was not long before it claimed its first doper, Swedish modern pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall. 

But he was not caught for taking steroids or speed, instead for a couple of sneaky beers he had before his shooting event to try to calm his nerves. 

Liljenwall nailed the shooting portion of  the competition, and the Swedish team was able to claim a bronze medal in the team event until it was later stripped from them.

For many years, Liljenwall was the only one caught. 

But soon a trickle of other dopers were busted. 

Unsurprisingly, beer was rapidly overtaken as the substance of choice, with the wisdom of the Ancient Greeks being the basis for a surprising advancement in performance-enhancing drugs. 

Old tricks 

It turns out those early Olympians  may have been onto something when they were eating the testicles of animals.

In 1927, American chemist Fred Koch discovered what we know now as testosterone, sparking a series of rapid new developments in the area.

By 1935, the researchers isolated the hormone and later began manufacturing it.

The researchers’ discovery earned them the 1939 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The impact of testosterone, and the broader group of steroids, has cast a vast shadow over sport ever since.

By the 1952 Games, rumours spread the Soviet weightlifters were experimenting with substances to improve their performance.

It took years for a reliable test for testosterone to be developed, and by then there were many new substances on the market, as well as experimentation with blood doping. 

Testosterone and other steroids still make up a fair chunk of the historical positive tests for doping at the Olympics, despite the advancements in technology. 

The next modern pentathlete to test positive at the Games after Liljenwall was Australian Alex Watson. 

Later Watson was cleared on appeal, tested positive for caffeine but banned from competing in his event.

The secret race

But the race is not only on the track. It is also in the lab. 

The battle has continued between those pushing past the boundaries and those determined to catch them. 

In the wake of the 2008 Olympics, anti-doping officials saved samples collected at the Games, poised to re-test them as drug-detecting technology developed. 

Since the Games, another 66 athletes have been caught out for doping during the event, adding to the 10 caught at the time.

And it is not just positive tests that have brought athletes unstuck, with Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones retrospectively stripped of medals for years of systematic doping. 

Jones even served time in jail for perjury for lying about her drug use. 

And Chinese swimmer Sun Yang will be not competing at the 2020 Games — not because of a positive test but rather for interfering with a doping test and the collection of a sample.

Not only are the techniques being used to catch athletes rapidly evolving, but so is what is considered banned. 

The world Anti-Doping Agency continues to refine what is on the “prohibited substances” list. 

In the future, as the battle lines are redrawn, it is possible that athletes like US track and field star Richardson are not banned.

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