This Is the Olympics on Drugs

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Illustration by Ed Gabel

The increasingly red (and egg-spattered) face of the IOC just blushed one shade deeper. After finally achieving some distance from charges of corruption and pocket-lining, the beleaguered International Olympics Committee is on the block again. It seems that after examining the results of a two-year federally funded study surveying doping at the Games, the White House office of drug policy has written a scathing rebuke of the IOC, blaming the committee's haphazard screening methods for the rising incidence of athletic drug abuse. The 107-page reprimand was released Friday.

The $1 million investigation, led by Columbia University's National Commission on Sports and Substance Abuse, revealed that some Olympic coaches and athletes believe as many as 90 percent of competitors use performance-enhancing drugs. And it's hardly any wonder, according to IOC critics, who point to the escalating financial pressures placed on elite athletes: You win any way you can, and you get the endorsements, the international fame, the cash, the eternal indebtedness of major television networks and the IOC. You lose, and you've lost it all.

For athletes, of course, the stumbling block is equal enforcement: There is no reason for one swimmer, for example, to give up her human growth hormone (an increasingly popular supplement for which there currently are no tests) unless she has a guarantee that everyone she's competing against will also be clean. And at this point athletes have no such confidence. If, however, every single athlete is bound by the rules of some legitimate authority figure — i.e., other than the IOC-run World Anti-Doping Agency, currently the reigning arbiter of drug policy — there might be some impetus for clean competition.

It's hard to predict whether another toothless, albeit public, scolding will effect much of a response from the IOC, which has proved itself one of the world's most inept bureaucracies. The White House report advocates sweeping modifications: Creating an objective drug policy administrator, comprehensive out-of-competition testing, new labeling for dietary supplements and intensive international research. But when the starting whistle blows, neither the White House nor the IOC will be making the final call: Instead, the fans will ultimately decide (via their spending choices and their viewership) what kind of Games they want to see: Cleaner, Kinder, Slower... or Dirtier, Grouchier, Faster.