Let's Talk About Doping In Rowing

And we mean that in two ways.

First, we mean let's stop pretending that doping couldn't possibly be going on in rowing because (by and large) it's an amateur sport. And second, we mean that given recent alarming findings by the IAAF, we need to start having open conversations about it.

There's a popular sentiment in the rowing community that nobody is doping because there's no financial incentive to do so. In sports like cycling, track and field, tennis, and football, there are tremendous financial gains to be made—'not so in our sport,' we say. But is that really true? And, even if it is largely true, does that matter?

The answers are no, and no. As for the first assumption, there is plenty of evidence of people doping in amateur sports. Here are two examples, from The Independent, and the Washington Post. There are plenty more, but let's not labor the point. And regarding financial incentives, while rowing is largely an amateur sport in the United States many other countries, there are significant monetary rewards for performance in rowing, and not just at the Olympic Games (but, while we're on the subject of the Games, here's an index of what national federations are planning to hand out to athletes for gold medal performances in Rio).

A further issue we must take into account is what the coaches have on the line—i.e., salaries and performance incentives. Even in countries where the athletes make very little in terms of stipends or subsidies, often the coaches are paid hefty salaries by their respective National Olympic Committees.

Those same coaches also have significant influence over their athletes throughout training and selection (obviously). That influence will go a long way toward their athletes' likelihood of doping.

All this is before we even get to countries where nationally sponsored, systematic doping is the norm. (And of course, we've just had a crew disqualified from Rio based on doping following the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta.)

Another argument often brought up by those who do not believe doping is an issue in rowing is that PEDs are expensive and difficult to obtain. The reality is that it is not hard to obtain banned, performance-enhancing drugs such as EPO, steroids, or HGH. See the example of runner Christian Heschhere profiled by The New York Times—as an illustration of the ease of competing undetected while using EPO for a prolonged period: Hesch was making very little money, while taking what many would perceive to be a huge risk. After over two years of taking EPO, he was not caught because of a failed test, but rather because of an empty vial discovered in his bag.

We can also look to the statistics about the number of high school students who have reported using steroids or some other performance-enhancing drug. As articles like this one from the Foundation for Global Sports Development, and this one from the New York Post suggest, there are huge issues even within that demographic, with many of these high school-aged students taking banned, performance-enhancing substances for self-esteem reasons.

The worst part is, even clean drug tests aren't really proof that there's no doping going on—it's just the best evidence we have right now. For those that point to the lack of positive drug tests in rowing as evidence of minimal cheating, just think about this: Lance Armstrong. Currently, famed track coach Alberto Salazar has been under serious fire for allegations of elaborate doping of his athletes despite zero failed drug tests from any of his athletes.

And, even when athletes do test positive, we need to understand those results in context. Often, it's not as simple as one individual making a poor decision, but rather the end result of a complex, corrupt system over which the athlete may have little control.

The bottom line is that rowing is but one part (tessera, if you will) within the mosaic of international sport—it's not immune to the problems of the rest of the sporting world, no matter how different we may feel it is from its counterparts.

That said, the point is not to cast a shadow on the sport of rowing as a whole. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of examples of athletes and coaches doing everything the right way, just as is the case in other sports.

Rather, the point is to caution against the simplistic view that rowing isn't subject to the same pressures as other Olympic sports. It is, and it will be. And it's up to all of us to safeguard it against a very real problem.


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