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New Doping Tests Are Turning Past Runners-Up Into Olympic Medalists

Over 75 medal winners from the 2008 and 2012 games have been busted for doping, scrambling the Olympic record books

Chaunté Lowe, who placed sixth in the high jump in the 2008 Beijing Games, is now a bronze medalist (Wikimedia Commons/Erik van Leeuwen)
smithsonian.com

Christmas is still a month away, but many athletes around the world woke up this week to discover a special present: an Olympic medal.

In the wake of revelations about Russia's state-run doping scheme, officials have been retesting urine samples for performance enhancing drugs from the 2008 and 2012 summer games, reports Rebecca Ruiz at The New York Times. This reanalysis has led to the discovery of more than 75 athletes found guilty of doping, bumping at least 40 athletes up to spots on the podium.

One of those winners is American high jumper Chaunté Lowe, reports Tom Goldman at NPR. Lowe, a four-time Olympian and U.S. record holder, woke up recently to a Facebook message from a former competitor congratulating her on her bronze medal, writes Goldman. Apparently three athletes who placed above her during the Beijing games were disqualified due to doping, bringing Lowe from sixth place to third.

Lowe says she’s happy that she won the medal and doesn’t want to minimize the achievement. But missing the podium in 2008, reports Goldman, meant Lowe did not receive sponsorships and bonus money that she and her family needed. In the year following the 2008 games, Lowe and her husband’s home was foreclosed and he lost his job. But that isn't stopping Lowe from enjoying the long-overdue recognition.

“They’ve already stolen so much from me that I don't want to lose sight of the beauty that now I'm a medalist,” she says.

This new scrutiny came after Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of the Russian anti-doping laboratory during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, admitted to giving his nation's athletes a three-drug cocktail and cooperating with Russian intelligence services to secretly swap vials of those athlete's urine with clean ones at night, the BBC reports.

The World Anti-Doping Agency soon began investigating the Russian Olympic program, uncovering a state-sponsored doping program that spanned at least a four-year period of both Summer and Winter games. About one-third of the Russian team was banned from competing in the Rio Games in the summer of 2016 because of the doping scandal. But it isn’t just Russians who were stripped of their medals in this most recent investigation. Most of the athletes were in track and field or weight lifting and come from former Eastern bloc nations including Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan.

But it's more than just reexamining old samples, Ruiz reports, anti-doping technology has dramatically changed in the last decade. Officials can detect drug levels that were impossible to find during games just eight or four years ago, Ruiz reports. “Science progresses every day,” Dr. Olivier Rabin of the World Anti-Doping Agency tells Ruiz. “Just over the past probably five years, the sensitivity of the equipment progressed by a factor of about 100. You see what was impossible to see before.”

The medal swap is expected to continue with the release of results from drug tests on samples taken during the 2014 Sochi Winter games still to come. Officials also plan to examine samples form the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 2006 Turin games.

Despite decades of concern about doping, the problem just seems to be getting worse, and that does not bode well for the Olympics. “The numbers are just impossible, incredible,” Gian-Franco Kasper, an executive board member of the International Olympic Committee tells Ruiz. “We lose credibility. Credibility is a major concern.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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