Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Russian Olympic Program Sold its Soul to the Devil at the Cross-Roads: a Socratic Dialogue

The New York Times continues to do good work covering corruption in professional sports. 

Today they have a detailed article explaining how the Russian Federation managed to find a way to break the supposedly tamper-proof Swiss-made vials that are used for urine testing during international sporting events, and how with the aid of a secret passageway in the Russian built drug testing laboratory at the Sochi Olympics, Russian officials surreptitiously managed to replace contaminated urine samples taken after competition with clean samples taken months earlier.  As many as 100 "dirty" urine samples of winning Russian athletes were expunged, said Dr. Grigory Rodchenko, who was in charge of the lab at Sochi. Over the years leading up to Sochi, Dr. Rodchenko has admitted, he destroyed several thousand positive doping samples of Russian athletes. 

Dr. Rodchenko has no regrets. He described his work at Sochi to the NYT as "the apex of a decade-long effort to perfect Russia’s doping strategy at international competition." By Sochi, Dr. Rodchenko was at the heart of the effort. “We were fully equipped, knowledgeable, experienced and perfectly prepared for Sochi like never before,” he said. “It was working like a Swiss watch.” As a result, Russian athletes managed to win more total medals, and more gold medals than any other country at Sochi. After the Olympics President Putin presented Dr. Rodchenko with a special medal of recognition. 

It all began to unravel last November when the World Anti-Doping Agency ("WADA") released a 323 page report that implicated Russian coaches, athletes, and various state institutions in "likely the most extensive state-sponsored doping program since the notorious East German regime of the 1970s." The fallout has been sordid. Dr. Rodchenkov, was forced to resign. He left Russia, "fearing for his safety," says the Times report. Apparently he had reason: after the scandal broke two colleagues, previous heads of the Russian anti-doping agency mysteriously died. 

So what do we have here?  Athletes cheating, a whole country adopting cheating as a strategy, and once discovered... lying about it. As usual, when the WADA report came out last November, the Russian response was "Cheating? Who, us? These are slanderous accusations! We compete fair and square." Except, of course, they didn't. And did this really lead to murder? Is that what explains the death of Dr. Rodochenko's close colleagues? I'm assuming it did, but who knows. 

Cheating, lying about it to cover up, murder.... and a lack of remorse, all for an increased medal count. "Dr. Rodchenkov boasted about his ability to shield doped athletes from detection," says the Times article. Whether this is discovered or not, what kind of glory is that? 

And, of course, we think of Lance Armstrong who cheated and, for years reaped the benefits, ultimately to be disgraced. We think of Ben Johnson who cheated and was disgraced at the moment of his glory. We think of Florence Griffith Joyner, the fastest woman ever, who almost certainly cheated and, at age 38 may have paid the ultimate price.  We think of Marion Jones

So What of It? A Socratic Dialogue

Bust of Socrates/Vatican
Glaucon: So why should we compete in sports cleanly? Why should we not partake of performance enhancing drugs if they lead to victory and fame? Why should we not lie to hide our cheating so our reputation may be preserved, nay enhanced?  People say that by taking one milligram of steroid mixture with every milliliter of alcohol, and swishing it under the tongue so it properly absorbs, our ability to win is greatly enhanced. And what if we aren't found out? Is this not naturally good?

Socrates: I know that is the general view.  Just think of all those people who cheered on Barry Bonds setting home run records when everyone knew he was on the sauce. Thrasymachus has been saying justice is for the weak and foolish and praising the taking of performance enhancing drugs because, in this day and age, it is the only way you can win. What's more, steroids do lead to great success and fame. But I continue to think we should not cheat and tell the truth for its own sake. It seems I am a slow learner. 

Glaucon: How about we look at what justice and injustice are, and we take account of the rewards and the consequences of each of them? 

Adeimantus: That is an excellent idea. 

Glaucon: Now people say that to cheat with performance enhancing drugs is naturally good, but to compete cleanly and lose to a cheater--to suffer injustice--that is bad. But does not the pain of having talent and training hard for years, but losing to a cheater, does not this pain far exceed the goodness to be derived from cheating? 

Socrates: Tell me more. 

Glaucon: Hence does it not make sense for all competitors to make laws and covenants with each other about what is lawful in competition, and to neither cheat nor to suffer the ignominy of losing to a cheater? That, they say, is the origin and very being of justice. Justice is in between the best and the worst: the best being to cheat (and not be caught) and the worst being to lose to a cheater without being able to take revenge. People love justice, not because it is a good thing, but because they are too weak to do injustice with impunity. 

Thrasymachus: My point exactly! But Putin and his friends at the Russian Federation are not so weak as not to do injustice with impunity. Nay they will not stop even at murder. 

Glaucon: Is it not true that none are so incorruptible but that they will cheat if they know they can win by doing so and not get caught? Isn't that what the devil said about Faust?  No-one believes competing fair and square is a good thing when it is kept private, since whenever either person thinks he can win by cheating and not get caught, he does it. Indeed, all men believe that injustice is far more profitable in itself than justice. 

Thrasymachus: Indeed, just imagine someone not cheating just for the sake of fairness (as opposed to some external benefit like wanting a good reputation for fairness). It's absurd. Must we not imagine this just person as being wrongly accused of cheating (to take the reputation seeking motive off the table) even while he plays by the rules? His reputation is in tatters even as he competes cleanly. He may be a domestique; a bit player. Not widely loved. Now compare this person to someone like Lance Armstrong who for an entire career managed to cheat and win, and win, and win, and, by speaking persuasively, and acting aggressively, fend off challenges to his reputation, because he is courageous and strong and has provided himself with wealth and friends. Look at these two persons after Lance's fifth Tour de France win... and tell me who is the happier. 

Glaucon: Yes, the key is not to compete fairly, but be perceived as competing fairly. And isn't this what the Russians were shooting for? Why should we be critical?

Socrates: Consider, why do we have the Tour de France, why do we have these Olympic games? Do we not need to band together in fellowship to have such competitions? And does not such very fellowship demand of us that we not take short-cuts during the marathon, that we not take one milligram of steroids mixed with one millimeter of alcohol and swish it under our tongue? 

Adeimantus: And some, of course, say that if we take such a short cut for short-term gain and fame and adulation, the gods are watching over us and we will be punished in due course. 

Glaucon: Yes, ill-gotten fame is fleeting. Didn't Robert Johnson sell his soul to the devil at the cross-road in order to become the best guitar player in the world? Didn't Lance Armstrong in his way make a pact with the devil, and didn't the devil come calling soon after his seventh Tour de France championship? And what about poor Marco Pantani?

Thrasymachus: But you are dodging the issue. All fame is fleeting. Besides, the thought experiment is "what if you don't get caught?" Are you telling me justice is just about fear of Dick Pound?

Socrates: Anytime you make a deal with the devil, whether it be at the cross-roads or by swilling a milligram of steroid mixed with a millimeter of alcohol under your tongue, there is uncertainty of what comes next. Wether the devil takes your soul, whether the gods punish you, whether you die of a stroke in your sleep at age 38, whether you are disgraced by WADA and held up for scorn in public, or whether you are never found out, cheating will sour your life. But not just your life, it will sour competition. It will sour the lives of your competitors. It will sour the enjoyment of the fans. It will force your competitors to put their own bodies at risk by perhaps swilling their own cocktails. It will corrupt the youth.  And corrupting the youth.... trust me, that is something I know of.

So to hell with you, Putin and Rodchenko. May the devil take your souls. An in the meantime, let's keep funding WADA. 


  1. Good job Roland. The Russians apologized (without admitting guilt.

  2. Thanks, Don. It's like a seven year pleading for his allowance back....