By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Popular Chinese swimmer Sun Yang is banned from competition until February 2024. Sun Yang was the first man to win China an Olympic gold medal for swimming. Doping has plagued sports for over a century.
Olympic gold medalist Sun Yang of China has been banned—for a second time—from competition swimming. An initial ban for doping was overturned when one of Yang’s judges expressed anti-Chinese bias on Twitter. However, the ban for doping was then reinstated after Yang refused to let officials leave his home with vials of blood and urine samples to test for performance-enhancing drugs. A member of his entourage even ordered security detail to smash the vials with a hammer.
Doping has been in professional sports since 1891, when cycling coach Choppy Warburton encouraged his team members to use everything from cocaine to strychnine. In her video series Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals, Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, forensic anthropologist and Professor of Biology at Mt. Saint Joseph University, explored the most famous athlete doping scandal of recent years, which involved cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Overwhelming Odds, Overwhelming Charges
While already a well-known athlete, Lance Armstrong became a national hero after beating stage three testicular cancer—despite it having spread to his brain, lungs, and abdomen. He returned to his career and made seven consecutive first-place wins in the Tour de France, from 1999 to 2005.
After retiring, he returned to competitive cycling in 2009, but was forced into retirement after being accused of playing part in what was called the biggest doping scandal of cycling history. Much of the hearings was based on the use of a hormone called erythropoietin, or EPO.
“Erythropoietin is made by the kidneys to increase red blood cell production in bone marrow,” Dr. Murray said. “Since red cells deliver oxygen to muscles, the use of EPO ultimately enhances endurance.
“Athletes got away with EPO use for years because there was no blood screen capable of detecting the pharmaceutical versions—that is, until 2000, when the French National Anti-Doping Agency developed a test for synthetic EPO.”
During the hearings, Armstrong’s teammates admitted to injecting EPO directly into their veins after being instructed in the practice by the team doctor. They claimed Armstrong supplied them not only with EPO, but also testosterone, human growth hormone, and other banned substances.
The Long Ride Down
As hearings proceeded, horror stories and pulse-pounding capers came to light.
“Armstrong and other team members even engaged in blood transfusions, or rather, re-infusions of their own blood that they had previously extracted from each other,” Dr. Armstrong said. “They hung blood bags from picture hooks in hotels or in the team van along the roadside while the driver faked engine difficulty.
“Some cyclists recalled the icy chill of the cold blood as it entered their veins or dumping drugs into the commode on the team’s camper when they thought police were about to raid them.”
Once, a team physician diluted Armstrong’s blood using an IV bag of saline that the doctor had hidden under his coat and smuggled into the cyclist’s bedroom. He walked right past the drug inspector who was setting up his blood-testing equipment.
“Eventually, the forensic evidence used by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in the summer of 2012 included lab reports from blood samples taken during Armstrong’s 2009 to 2010 comeback, as well as emails, photographs, and financial documents, including forensic accounting records detailing payments of over a million dollars to one of the team’s physicians,” Dr. Murray said.
“The agency ultimately amassed more than 1,000 pages of testimony from 26 different witnesses, including 11 of Armstrong’s cycling teammates who decided to break their silence and come forward.”
Armstrong was indicted for using banned substances, for drug possession and trafficking, among other offenses. Dr. Murray said they brought charges against the team’s director, trainer, and three doctors.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency submitted a decision to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body of cycling. By fall 2012, Armstrong was stripped of all medals he had won professionally, including his seven Tour de France wins, and permanently banned from participating in future professional competitions.