Ian O’Riordan: Fear and loathing on the Olympic nostalgia trail
Heralded as the ‘cleanest Olympics ever’, London 2012 now turns out to be the dirtiest of the lot
Fireworks burst over Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
In case you’re interested, the BBC will be mainlining Olympic nostalgia over the next two weeks, tripping back in time from Beijing to Rio and also injecting a special Danny Boyle cut of the London 2012 opening ceremony.
Beginning on Tuesday, the Olympics Rewind series – 96 episodes in all, taking in the last three summer Games – will also revisit the London 2012 torch relay, ask viewers to vote for their favourite Olympic moments, before concluding on Friday week, July 24th, the original date of the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony, for now still placed intangibly out there for exactly one year later.
“Forming a fortnight of entertainment and nostalgia, the programming will look back on incredible accomplishments, record-breaking performances and huge British gold medal hauls from each Olympic Games,” says the BBC’s director of sport Barbara Slater.
Indeed the nostalgia part already kicked in last Monday, when 15 years ago to the day, London won that 2012 Olympic and Paralympics bid, beating off favourites Paris, to their own quite considerable surprise.
There’s no denying the entertainment part either, especially London’s opening ceremony, our own Katie Taylor too, the only problem being many of those incredible accomplishments and record-breaking performances that followed are no longer legit – that huge British gold medal haul aside.
Then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt may have publicly declared intent to make London “the cleanest Olympics ever”, but eight years on and all the evidence now suggests they were actually the dirtiest, the number of positive doping cases resting (for now) at 140, more than Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004 combined.
Part of the deal for London 2012 was bringing pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline on board as sponsors of the anti-doping programme, with the promise of “the most rigorous if not fool-proof testing in Olympic history”. There would be 6,250 tests, on over half the number of competitors, including all three medallists in every event, each sample tested for 240 banned substances within 24 hours of being taken.
“If people are cheating in London, and it is detectable, then we will detect them, and they will be ejected from the Games,” said Jonathan Harris, head of anti-doping at London 2012.
At GlaxoSmithKline, Kerry O’Callaghan sounded equally defiant: “We are very hopeful that people won’t cheat,” she said, “but we are very confident that if they do, they will be caught.”
By the closing ceremony, on August 12th, they’d found just nine adverse findings from those reported 6,250 tests, including Belarusian shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk, who was later stripped of her gold medal, and Ghofrane Mohammad, a Syrian hurdler from Aleppo.
What has happened since? Under World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) rules, all samples can be retrospectively tested eight years after being taken (in 2015 this was increased to 10 years), which means for London the retesting period ends this August 12th.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) delegated the management of all this to the International Testing Agency (ITA), who appear to be doing a far better job second time round.
Their latest case was announced on Thursday, when Turkish weightlifter Mete Binay, who finished sixth in the 69kg division in London, was stripped of that position after the re-analysis of his samples from 2012 resulted in a positive test for the prohibited substance Stanozolol.
Binay, the 2010 World Championship gold medal winner, is in good company, one of at least 32 weightlifters from London who have had their results disqualified on reanalysis. In all, nine of the 15 weightlifting events of 2012 have seen their medal standings change due to positive tests, six of the seven women’s events also impacted. Binayg’s also the 66th athlete to be stripped of his London result by the ITA, compared to just five retrospective positives in Athens in 2004.
Dozens more positive cases, already decided by The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), have also had their say on many of the results from London, Turkish 1,500m runner Asli Cakir Alptekin now banned for life after a third doping offence, Russian race walker Sergei Kirdyapkin also stripped of his 50km walk gold medal, which resulted in Rob Heffernan being promoted to bronze, albeit four years after the event.
Still there’s not a single British positive among them, the greatest share of the London dopers belonging to the Russian team, the story of which was brilliantly aired in Bryan Fogel’s 2017 documentary Icarus, after his chance encounter with Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov.
Icarus suggests that many other Russians medallists from might have got away with it if it wasn’t for Rodchenkov, who we know now had inside information (or at least a tour of) the anti-doping programme in London, his ambition to get away with even more at the Winter Games in Sochi two years later. And he nearly did too.
Instead, Rodchenkov came clean with that accidentally starring role in Icarus, and after the 2015 Wada Independent Commission which proved, among other things, “a deeply rooted culture of cheating” in Russian athletics, and, by likely extension, in other sports too.
That prompted the memorable line from Dick Pound, the former head of Wada, when telling a band of journalists in Geneva that the Russian athletics federation had essentially “sabotaged” the 2012 London Olympics, such was their “widespread inaction” against athletes with suspiciously obvious doping profiles.
“It’s worse than we thought,” said Pound, a man who usually feared for the worst when it comes to doping.
Whatever fear is left that athletes from London might still be caught doping, or indeed get away with it, some of this nostalgia and especially around Rio 2016 may well be viewed with loathing, given the news earlier this week that UK Sport is investigating the “shocking and upsetting” allegations of serious physical and emotional abuse of British gymnasts.
This follows the broadcast of Athlete A, which detailed physical and emotional abuse of gymnasts, in addition to the crimes of the US team doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexual offences against hundreds of under-age American gymnasts.
Against that backdrop are other independent reports which a year after Rio found a “culture of fear” had developed at British Cycling in its relentless pursuit of medals, then a same “culture of fear” in canoeing, a “climate of fear” in swimming, of “mistrust” in athletics and possible bullying and “unnecessary stress” in rowing, and there could be more where that came from.
With Olympics Rewind, there may also be a reminder that each Olympics is usually regarded as the dirtiest since the next one, only for now London stands alone as the dirtiest of the lot.