How the use of performance enhancing drugs threatens the Olympics

Latest doping cases raise questions on anti-cheating methods

How the use of performance enhancing drugs threatens the Olympics

In the week leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned the lifetime suspensions for doping charges of 28 Russian athletes. In a brief statement, the CAS explained that the bans could not be upheld because evidence did not support rule violations by the athletes, despite the allegations of state-sponsored doping that had shadowed Russia since 2014.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) expressed concern over the ruling by the CAS, and it quickly rejected the requests of 13 of the newly exonerated athletes to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics. The IOC argued that although the CAS had overturned 28 lifetime bans, 11 were still being upheld — which the IOC cited as proof that there existed “systemic manipulation of the anti-doping system” within the Russian national team.

The use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is not a new phenomenon in the world of competitive sports. For athletes, the pressure associated with competing at the elite level is surely daunting. Having dedicated years of their lives to a sport, the seemingly minute risk of being accused and subsequently charged with doping in exchange for grand titles and records has always proven too tempting for some athletes. Lance Armstrong, for instance, was revered for years as the world’s best professional cyclist before he was accused of illegal doping, stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, and banned from the sport.

At the elite level, accusations of doping and the ensuing media attention can make the use of PEDs appear prevalent, though it may be an unfair exaggeration to claim that doping is somehow inherent in sport culture at large. Nevertheless, with the investigations into allegations of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, one question surges to the top: how is the issue of illegal doping resolved?

When doping occurs at the Olympics, the IOC will become involved. Following a flurry of allegations claiming that Russian athletes had violated the Olympics’ rules against doping during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, the Schmid Commission was created to confront what the IOC called a “systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia.” Although Russia has continually denied that there was ever any coordinated state effort to provide its athletes with PEDs, the Schmid Commission’s findings have detailed the opposite.

The commission recommended a broad framework of action to the IOC, suggesting that it implement strong measures to deter the continued advancement of a doping program, defend the rights of clean Russian athletes to compete, and evaluate the costs of the two IOC-mandated commissions. The Oswald Commission, separate from the Schmid Commission, was established to investigate the alleged doping violations committed by athletes who competed in Sochi. In accordance with the recommendations, the IOC voted to immediately suspend the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), issue the ROC a $15 million USD fine to compensate for the costs of the investigation, and allow for Russian athletes to compete in the Olympics as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”

The use of PEDs across competitive sports on other elite levels falls into the purview of independent organizations such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an institution established to ensure athletes comply with consistent anti-doping regulations during competitions. WADA’s claim to impartiality is not without scrutiny. In July 2016 — mere weeks before the start of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro — WADA released the McLaren Report, which accused Russia of state-sanctioned doping.

The report forced the IOC to ban dozens of Russian athletes from competing based on a previous history with PEDs, while hundreds of others were barred from competition until an IOC panel could approve their cases. IOC President Thomas Bach blamed WADA for its unfortunate timing. In a subtle critique of WADA’s supposed impartiality, Bach also remarked that despite receiving information years ago, WADA did not choose to further investigate those matters.

The organizations responsible for enforcing anti-doping regulations do not seem to shy away from implementing wholesale participation bans, but these bans come at the cost of subjecting a large number of athletes to humiliating penalties usually intended to punish only a few.

Vicky Sunohara’s Olympic journey

Blues head coach talks coaching and Olympics

Vicky Sunohara’s Olympic journey

As the 2018 Winter Olympics draw near, University of Toronto Varsity Blues women’s hockey head coach Vicky Sunohara reflects on the highs and lows of competing in the Olympics.

Twenty years ago, as a member of the Canadian women’s hockey team, Vicky Sunohara lost to the United States in the inaugural women’s hockey tournament during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Sunohara says she was devastated after losing that hockey game, a combination of not only the magnitude of the event but the personal importance playing in Japan meant to her.

Sunohara’s first Olympic experience brought her closer to home in a familial sense. The extended family of her late father — who passed away when she was only seven — lived just 80 kilometres away from where the games were being held.

“I encountered many family members and relatives [who] I didn’t even know existed. It was just pretty special to be there and it’s just funny how things happen,” says Sunohara.

Sunohara rebounded four years later, as Canada beat the United States in the gold medal game in Salt Lake City. The lead up to the 2002 Winter Olympics was a challenging one for Canada — who lost eight straight exhibition games to the Americans, not to mention that the games were held five months after 9/11, adding to the already heightened importance of the event. The taxing journey, however, made the end result all the more special for Sunohara.

“There were so many things that were a part of our journey that were difficult to manage,” recalls Sunohara. She describes the experience of beating the defending champions at home, as “a great experience, and very special.”

Sunohara returned with Canada for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, an Olympics she knew, deep down, would be her last. That year, she played on a line affectionately nicknamed the ‘Old Dogs’ alongside Cassie Campbell and Danielle Goyette, two other veteran players and Canadian legends in their own right. The fact that it was her last Olympics made everything feel all the more special.

The tournament marked a big year for the growth of women’s hockey; Canada defeated Sweden for gold, breaking up the prospect of a third consecutive Canada-US gold medal final, as the United States instead earned bronze.

In Italy, Sunohara was surrounded by her teammates and family. While her last Olympics would be memorable no matter what, Canada winning their second consecutive gold medal was the perfect ending to her Olympic career.

“I wanted the moment to kind of stand still,” she explains.

Sunohara brings the lessons learned from her Olympic experiences with her everywhere she goes, from her hockey camp in Whitby, Ontario to her current role as head coach of the Varsity Blues women’s hockey team. “Those Olympic values are what we hold here at the University of Toronto,” she says.

Sunohara believes in teaching what she defines as “Olympic values,” naming integrity, accountability, and commitment as a few key traits. “It’s more than just teaching a wrist shot or slap shot; it’s teaching the team, it’s teaching anybody that I have the opportunity to be in contact with those Olympic values.”

It’s a big responsibility to pass these values on, but it’s one that she’s happy to have. Being able to share her experiences with young players is one of the reasons that she became a coach. As she got older and felt less able to compete at the highest level, she turned to coaching and found that she loved it. “It was a whole different side of how I looked at the game and what I’ve done and what I can do.”

Sunohara has coached and mentored players at a variety of ages and skill levels, from national-level camps down to kids who just want to make their local rep team, and she finds it all gratifying.

“I felt it rewarding, being able to give back and to help these younger players possibly experience the dreams that I lived.” She tries to instil in her players more than just skills, and through Olympic values also endeavours to “teach them to be better people.”

The Blues have had an up and down season. Despite this, Sunohara feels that by pacing themselves, they’ll have a shot at the playoffs.

“We’re talking about having a playoff mentality right now,” she adds. “Every game is important.”

With the NHL opting not to send its players to the 2018 Winter Olympics, there is potential for more focus to be centred on the women’s hockey tournament. Media coverage can be hugely influential in sports — Sunohara remembers what it was like following the inclusion of women’s hockey in the Olympics in 1998 and the boom of female registration that this inclusion in the media created. “I want to say 200 per cent or something, registration grew.”

As women’s hockey continues to grow, the focus turns to keeping girls involved in the game as they get older. For Sunohara, the key to continued involvement lies in creating opportunities for female coaches and mentors in the game.

Since Sunohara has started coaching in Ontario University Athletics, she believes that more female coaches have become involved, a step in the right direction. For her, it all comes back to the league creating the opportunities.

“The opportunity to teach, an opportunity to coach, to teach skills. I think that that definitely will keep females involved in the game.”

Recent Varsity Blues captain and U of T graduate Alessandra Bianchi highlights the success of the Blues women’s hockey program. Bianchi was selected by the Toronto Furies in the 11th round of the 2017 Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) Draft.

Sunohara takes pride in Bianchi’s growth but understands that playing hockey at the next level won’t be the case for all of her players.

“It’s really cool,” comments Sunohara. “I feel very fortunate to be a part of it… it’s not just playing hockey at the next level, it’s seeing what they do and how they’ve gone on and started their careers.”

Ahead of Pyeongchang, Sunohara is excited by the prospect of the tournament. She highlights Canada’s decision to play in a midget-triple A boys’ league in Alberta as a key part of the team’s preparation, especially for the United States. In order for the team to win their fifth straight gold medal, Canada must first deal with the speed and skill of America’s high-powered offense, led by Hilary Knight and Amanda Kessel. Sunohara notes that goaltending has been one of the team’s biggest strengths, a key factor that may prove the difference for Canada.

“From goaltending up, they’ve got speed, talent, depth. I think they really think that in the exhibition games they had to figure out the speed and the skill of the Americans… and their offense.”

Women’s hockey has grown exponentially since 1998, and Sunohara, who sits on the board of directors for the CWHL, is looking toward the future. This year, the CWHL is paying its players a salary, something that Sunohara says the league is trying to implement in the right way. In terms of the future, she is optimistic that there are enough players and talent to create one professional league where currently there are many, with the CWHL and the US-based National Women’s Hockey League among them.

“We’ve got to find a way to have all the best players playing, and I think that we could have a very successful professional league, and perhaps be part of the NHL.”

“I think that those things are coming… I believe that it’s a matter of time.”

A personal reflection on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics

How hosting the Olympic Games changed a city

A personal reflection on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics

I was 11 years old when the Olympics came to town. In a way, the games taught me how to celebrate being Canadian. For two weeks, I danced through the streets with people from all over the world, celebrating wins and mourning losses. Together we laughed, sang, and ate Japadogs.

This ‘town’ I speak of is not Toronto. The mystical place I speak of lies beyond the boundaries of the GTA, across the plains, and over the mountains. If you travel west and keep going, you’ll find that nestled between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean lies Vancouver, the land of great sushi, overpriced housing, and the home of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

What were the 2010 Winter Olympics? In numbers, it can be boiled down to the third time that Canada hosted the games and the first time Canada won gold at home. In fact, Canadians won a record-setting 14 gold medals, the most ever for any country at a single Winter Games. But numbers are easy to list; what’s harder to describe is how the games changed the culture of Vancouver and, more specifically, how they changed me.

At the risk of sounding too sappy or overly patriotic — a typical Canadian fear — I must confess that I had never felt such an overwhelming love for this country as I did during those 17 days when the world arrived at my doorstep. As soon as the Olympic cauldron was lit, it was as if the city woke up. It was about time for us Vancouver residents to show some metropolitan pride, and show it we did. Vancouverites turned out in a way that I had never seen before and have not seen since. How can I describe what it felt like to see all the streets fill up with red and white, to hear spontaneous bursts of the national anthem, to watch strangers literally embrace each other whenever our athletes won a medal?

But it wasn’t just our country that we were celebrating — people from all over the world came to our little corner of Canada. That was what made the games something truly memorable. Walking down the streets of Whistler, I watched as different flags and languages intermingled.. The differences between us made the similarities all the more extraordinary. People gave me high-fives on the street as they sang their national anthem, and I’m sure that I had never smiled at so many strangers in my life.

I wasn’t the only one affected by the games. The Olympics excited every person in the city — including my elementary school teachers, who decided math class was less important than the women’s hockey game or the figure skating final. Needless to say, I missed a lot of class during those two weeks, but I wasn’t complaining. The Olympics electrified the city, all the way from Robson Square to my tiny elementary school classroom.

Of course, downtown was really where the party never stopped. People were ziplining through the air, the side of one of the buildings had been turned into a giant Canadian flag, and every few metres there seemed to be a group of children playing street hockey. You don’t see a sight so Canadian every day.

There are still remnants of the games scattered around. I’ve skated on the rink where our speed skaters won multiple medals, and I’ve posed in front of the Olympic Rings in Whistler. The city hasn’t forgotten the games, and it’s hard to imagine that it ever will. Two weeks of wearing red and white, dancing in the streets, and crying with strangers will do that to a city. Even the International Olympic Committee President at the time, Jacques Rogge, was quoted as saying that he had never seen anything like it before. “The way Vancouver embraced these Games was extraordinary… This is really something unique.” Maybe he says that about all the games, but I personally believe that the Vancouver Games were truly something special.

Avoiding white elephants at the Olympics

How to make sure venues don’t fall into disrepair after the games

Avoiding white elephants at the Olympics

Later this week, 35,000 people will gather at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in South Korea to mark the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics. The $132 million facility will host the opening and closing ceremonies for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games before being torn down.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) still has concerns regarding the future of some of the other venues in Pyeongchang. It warned in a report that, without a plan for how these venues will be used after the games, these events could end up as white elephants.

The 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece were a prime example of what the IOC is worried about. In the years following the games, Greece suffered a massive financial crisis after its sovereign debt levels rose to unsustainable levels. Today, many of the venues built for the Olympics are abandoned and overrun with weeds, although one of the decaying venues served as a refugee camp in the wake of the refugee crisis.

‘White elephants’ was the term used by Brazilian federal prosecutor Leandro Mitidieri to describe many of the venues used during the 2016 Summer Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro. Mitidieri, who is investigating corruption at the games, slammed the organizers for having “no planning when they put out the bid to host the Games.” Among the troubled venues are the athletes’ village, which was repurposed into luxury condominiums that are over 90 per cent unsold, and the decrepit Maracanã stadium, which now has brown grass, no electricity, and has been looted and vandalized.

Closer to home, Montréal’s Olympic Stadium, which is known as the ‘Big Owe’ due to the cost overruns involved in its construction, is only seldom used for sporting events and concerts after the Montréal Expos relocated to Washington, DC in 2004. Québec taxpayers are footing $17 million per year to fund the Régie des installations Olympiques, which is the body responsible for maintaining the stadium, as well as $250 million for a new roof. The current roof is not strong enough to handle more than three centimetres of snow, meaning the stadium, like in Athens, was most recently used to house asylum seekers last November.

The Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing and the Fischt Olympic Stadium in Sochi were built for the two the most expensive Olympics — the 2008 Summer and 2014 Winter Olympics, respectively — and have also seen sparse post-Olympic use. Although these venues will be re-used in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, as with the Montréal Olympic Stadium, neither of the stadiums has professional sports teams permanently playing home games.

In Pyeongchang, venues with uncertain futures include the 10,000-seat Gangneung Hockey Centre, which was going to be the home ice for a professional hockey team before the team pulled out of the agreement, the Gangneung Oval, which will host speed skating events, and the skiing venues.

To avoid white elephants, cities should either have robust legacy plans prepared for any new permanent venues or rely on existing or temporary venues.

Los Angeles is on the right track with its plans for the 2028 Summer Olympics, which will almost entirely rely on existing facilities and will require no new permanent venues. Among the city’s proposed venues are the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — which was previously used for the Olympics in 1932 and 1984 — to host track and field events and the student residences at University of California Los Angeles and University of Southern California to house athletes and the media.

Calgary, which hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics, is also considering a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, and the IOC has indicated that the city could easily reuse many of the 1988 venues.

Only time will tell if the new venues in Pyeongchang will find new life after the games or fall into disuse.

The geopolitical baggage of the 2018 Olympics

Can South and North Korea’s blink of peace lead to long-lasting change?

The geopolitical baggage of the 2018 Olympics

South Korea is no newcomer to the Olympics. In 1988, its capital city, Seoul, hosted the Summer Olympics. While the Cold War was thawing, the relationship between the northern and southern halves of the Korean peninsula was especially fraught. South Korea was eager to establish itself and move on from the legacy of the Korean War, but North Korea had its own ambitions.

South Korea made minimal efforts to incorporate the north, who originally wanted to co-host the games. South Korea refused, and the country instead offered to let North Korea host five minor sporting events. North Korea, angered and offended, declined. Tensions rose, and the international community began to wonder if North Korea might attempt to disrupt the games. Those fears were confirmed. On November 29, 1987, Korean Air Flight 858 crashed on its way to Seoul from Baghdad. None of the 115 individuals on board survived. It was soon revealed that two North Korean spies had planted a bomb in an overhead compartment in the aircraft before disembarking safely.

Thirty years later, North Korea is still shrouded in an iron curtain. Its government and people remain darkly mysterious to most of the world. However, the situation today seems even more perilous than it did in 1988.

While North Korean leadership appears willing to engage with major powers, US President Donald Trump wavers wildly in policy, and self-appointed Kim Jong Un whisperer Dennis Rodman is only getting older. And let’s not forget that North Korea now has nuclear capabilities, as well as the apparent will to use them.

In November 2017, North Korea tested a new missile that could reportedly reach the continental United States. In an interview with CNN, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis indicated that the missile launch showed North Korea now has the capacity “to hit everywhere in the world.”

But in the case of the 2018 Olympics, this staggering development seems minimal. Why? North Korean missiles would only have to fly around 80 kilometres to reach Pyeongchang. As thousands of athletes and international representatives flood into South Korea, the world will come to North Korea.

In recent months, South Korea has been incredibly active in urging North Korea to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. As the nuclear standoff intensified throughout 2017, fears of North Korean terrorism or intervention rose once more. The political situation in the United States did not help to assuage these concerns — nor did the rhetoric spewing from one infamous Twitter account.

As the unimaginable crept closer, South Korea grew increasingly conciliatory toward its Northern neighbours. The reasoning behind this is quite straightforward. If North Korea were to be involved in the Olympics in some capacity, it would theoretically be much less likely to attack the games.

In a strange twist, including a hostile nuclear power in an event focused on international cooperation appears to be key in securing that very event. The South Korean efforts came to fruition on January 9, after extended talks between North and South Korean delegations in the border village of Panmunjom. South Korea was represented by Cho Myoung-gyon, the minister focused on relations with the north, while North Korea was represented by Ri Son-kwon in a similar role.

Following their closed circuit television negotiations, North Korea agreed to send a large contingent of athletes to the games, as well as a cheering squad and a performance art group. It was also reported that the two Koreas would join forces to field a women’s hockey team together, which carries heavy symbolic connotations. This is reminiscent of the United States’ ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ efforts in 1971, which helped normalize relations between China and the US through a series of ping-pong matches.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Kim Kyung Sung, head of the South and North Korean Sports Exchange Association, explained that the “significance of the two nations that share a bloodline playing together on a single team cannot be overstated.” But at what cost? It is currently unclear what North Korea hopes to gain from these concessions — some fear that North Korea could use its participation as leverage to push for a lessening of sanctions.

Pundits and politicians alike hope that this blink of peace could lay the foundation for long-term change. South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo believes the 2018 Olympics are a “turning point” for the two Koreas, as the Straits Times reported. The South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, appears deeply committed to facilitating dialogue.

Others, such as Kim Sung Han, a former senior South Korean diplomat, are more pessimistic. The Atlantic reported his comments that, despite the symbolic power of the Olympic merger, “the best-case scenario would be this leading to high-level summit talks… multilateral dialogue for the denuclearization of North Korea.” In other words, the relationship between North and South Korea, as well as that between North Korea and the rest of the world, is much too complex to be solved through sport.

Nevertheless, the potency of North Korea’s participation in the 2018 Olympics cannot be overstated. This brief calm could create space for further discussion outside the Olympic sphere, or it could perhaps build constructive conversation between the US and North Korea.

Speculation aside, one of the few predictable things about North Korea is its unpredictability. It would make little sense to launch an attack while its own athletes are present, but no one can be certain of its true intentions. With the Olympics drawing ever closer, this story is one to watch.