Changing China

Giant on the move

The open secret of doping in sport

June 19, 2008

Technician carries tray of test tubes at Winter Olympics’ anti-doping laboratory in San Luigi hospitalBalazs Koranyi was an Olympic semi-finalist at the 1996 and 2000 Games for Hungary and since 2004 has been a Budapest-based correspondent, covering mainly political and business news. He will cover the Beijing Games for Reuters. 

I was first offered performance-enhancing drugs in 1998, after breaking the Hungarian 800-metre record and making the European championship finals.

Doping in sports is less hidden than many people think. Everyone suspects drug use is widespread, but what they see less is how athletes treat the subject as a regular, everyday part of the game.

In my five years on the international athletics circuit, I ran into the issue time and again, and had to make some tough choices.

A sports doctor and a coach I had never worked with called me in separately for chats and pushed me to get involved. They told me the risks were nil and results immediate. I was promised the drugs would shave a second off my time and were undetectable.

When I asked about health risks, they said modern drugs were safe and I had nothing to worry about. For good measure, I was told that only losers stayed clean and anybody who is somebody used something.

The push was strong but not vehement. Unlike many runners in eastern Europe before the collapse of communism, who were required to use drugs if they wanted to be on national teams, I did have a choice.

I would be lying if I said I did not think hard about saying yes. That single second could be the difference between a medal and not even making the finals.

Not long before, I had spent some time with a runner who would later become an Olympic champion. She made no secret about her drug use, and her coach made a strong case.

An athlete has just two to four years at the top, and has to earn enough money in that time to last a lifetime. Athletes in retirement usually have very unspectacular careers and most struggle to adjust to real life. But with a loaded bank account, you simply do not need to adjust.

Michael Johnson, the four-time Olympic champion who recently said he would return a 1996 Olympic relay gold medal because one of his teammates admitted to doping, argued that athletes on drugs do not tell friends about it.

My experience was different.

The athletes I knew did not brag about drugs but often compared notes. At one meet, I sat with a group of throwers on a bus heading to the stadium and listened to them comparing experiences with various drugs.

The discussion was a frank, matter-of-fact exchange of information. There were no emotions, no hints of shame or a feeling that this was wrong. It seemed like an everyday conversation about sports accessories, as if they had talked about shoes or hats.

Up to a point. One of the first things I learned when I began running internationally was not to look in other people’s trash. I once noticed a used Erythropotein (EPO) injection vial in the garbage, and got into trouble for looking too hard.

Everybody knows what is going on but discretion is a must. Used accessories are tossed in the garbage and everybody just knows not to look. The message was that this is a job and doping is sometimes part of the job.

In the end, I said noto the drugs: my family took pride in my success and that mattered more than medals. The offer was repeated a few times but I politely turned them down.

After one such rejection, I was called up for a surprisingly large number of drug tests.

Drug testing is not fun. It is heavy on procedure, never comes at a convenient time and peeing while another man watches is not easy. So I was irritated, and made some phone calls.

I was told it was no accident my name was on the list so often. As I was known to be clean, there was no risk in testing me to fill a testing quota.

I once had a long chat with the doctor who first offered me drugs and I asked him why he started. He said he accepted that he could not prevent athletes from taking drugs so the next best thing he could do was to give guidance to cut risks.

He said teens were most vulnerable as the first taste of success makes them hungry for more, and many simply lack the patience to work for it.

Drugs do not make you run faster. They let you train harder and recover quicker but athletes must still put in the work.

It would be fair to ask why I did not blow the whistle. The answer is I was too busy chasing my own dreams. Seeing something and proving it are two different things, and I was not ready to take on the world when all I wanted was my 15 minutes of fame.

The world has changed a lot over the past eight years. Testing is tougher and the anti-doping fight is more serious. But drugs are part of the game and this is a never-ending circle.

Picture by Daniele La Monaca


Hi Balzas,I am a social science researcher investigating doping in sport. I’m intrigued by the story you have to tell and I’d love to talk to you about your experiences in more detail. Please email me to discuss further.Thanks.

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