A Former Olympic Athlete On Competing Against Steroids
In the locker rooms at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta, competitors whispered about the cheaters in their midst. One swimmer in particular, Michelle Smith of Ireland, came out of nowhere to win three gold medals, one of which was in the 400 individual medley, a race that tests swimmers on all four main strokes. Smith had never medaled in an international competition and her 400 IM time was a whopping 20 seconds faster than she’d logged in the 1992 games in Barcelona. Years later, she was found guilty of doping and banned from the sport.
The silver medalist in that event was Allison Wagner, who is now, in retirement from professional competition, finding her voice as an anti-doping advocate.
On top of her silver in Atlanta, Wagner won a pair of silver medals in the 200 and 400 individual medleys at the World Championships in Rome two years earlier. In both races, Wagner lost the gold to Chinese swimmers who were later proven to be doping. Wagner is a 13-time U.S. national champion, an NCAA champion, and she held a world record in the 200 IM that stood for 15 years.
I met Wagner at the Collision Conference in New Orleans, and we talked about how it feels to compete on an uneven playing field, how some women are victims of systemic doping, and how swimming can clean up its act. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Can you put us in the locker rooms in Atlanta and Rome [where the 1994 world championships were held]? What’s the mentality?
In the locker room, we’d see women with injection marks in their rear end. We’d see women with facial hair growth. We’d see women with enlarged clitorises. And then we’d have to go to the pool and compete against them.
It’s an interesting challenge because you’re so infuriated by it, which can help. But tactically, you’re not just racing against them, but [against] them and a drug.
Is that actually in your head at all while you’re racing?
When you’re racing you’re making a lot of decisions in a short span of time, based on what your competitor’s body is doing. That’s one thing. But when there’s doping, then you are forced to think what the drug might be doing for their body. One of the main benefits of banned performance-enhancing drugs is reduced recovery time. So that’s one big thing to consider.
So you’re used to making decisions based on human capacity, not on the capacity that a drug has given somebody that’s not recognizable.
To play devil’s advocate, what do you say to people who argue that growth hormones and steroids should be thought of like any other type of medical prescription or training supplement? Why can’t athletes just do whatever they want to do to excel, and let the best dopers win? It’s not ‘doping’—it’s just part of training.
Obviously health for starters. Sport is supposed to be a good thing for you, right? But banned performance-enhancing drugs very often have really negative health consequences for the athlete, particularly for women. Look at the most commonly used classes of drugs—like steroids and growth hormones—the side effects include infertility and increased cancer risks.
Some of the athletes I raced against were consciously choosing to dope and maybe knew those risks. But some weren’t aware at all that they were doping.
Wait, what? How were they not aware?
It happens. Athletes are given supplements by their coaches or trainers, and they aren’t aware that they’re banned substances. It’s common in systemic doping regimes, like what was happening in Russia last year. There are kids being doped. Teens. Pre-teens. If you’re a kid, 12 years old and you’re away from your family and your coach says take this vitamin, what do you do? You think your coach has your best interest in mind.
Sometimes when these athletes later find out that they’ve been doped, they have to face health consequences and other consequences too, like shame in their community. [Systemic doping] is really cruel and unjust.
So what does good testing look like? Or better enforcement? Are they the same thing?
There has to be an independent policing force. There should be an organization that isn’t funded by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) that is actually enforcing the regulations. So you’ve got the brand funding the inspections and testing that could potentially damage the brand.
The WADA code as it stands is great in a lot of ways.
What is that?
The World Anti-Doping Code. In order to participate in the Olympic games or other elite international competitions, you agree to follow that code. But the enforcement, again—there’s huge variability and conflicts of interest there.
For example, when I was competing, you have someone that shows up to your house at a competition and says, ‘I’m going to get your urine. You have a drug test right now.’
What’s supposed to happen is, that person follows you around until they have your urine. They don’t let you out of their sight. And when you give that sample of urine, you’re supposed to be inspected. Take down your pants, all that. You could potentially have some urine strapped to your … whatever.
The woman who I lost to in the 1996 games, who was later caught, she somehow got time alone without a doping control agent. That kind of thing happened a lot. It still does.
So if the IOC shouldn’t pay—who would? The sports’ associations themselves? Independent bodies raising the money? Television networks?
I think that the national governing bodies of sport could fund it. They could all chip in for international testing. That creates some separation between the IOC brand and the testing.
And after a positive test is found, the IOC would still need to enforce.
Yes, so you’re hoping for better transparency in the IOC too. To enforce rules.
I like to think of it this way: There are ‘rules of play’ that every kid is taught. By the time you reach Olympic level, you know these rules inside and out. So why are doping infractions treated differently than infractions of rules of play? I think they should be treated exactly the same.
If you have a competition—for instance, swimming has all these technique rules. If you get to the wall in a breaststroke turn you have to touch with both hands. If you touch with one hand, you could be disqualified. And you won’t be surprised, because you know you broke the rule. But right now athletes might legitimately be surprised to get caught and disqualified for doping.
Twenty years after you finished second to a doper, it’s still widespread?
Absolutely. In my day it was athletes in China. Now you hear a lot about it in Russia. That systemic doping is tragic.
There are a lot of us that really care about the Olympic value—pursing excellence with integrity. And to have a venue in which everybody is doing that, from all over the world, is really [a] neat thing.
And that’s why people love to watch the Olympics in large part. Because it’s the demonstration of the human spirit, pursuing greatness. I’d like to play a part in protecting that. That’s the threat that doping poses. I actually think the viewership this summer reflected that.
People don’t want to watch something that was so pure, tainted by something that is so dirty.
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