Doping. Taking illegal substances to enhance performance. It’s against the rules. It’s not fair.
Simply put, it’s cheating. And it’s happening more often than you think.
What drives some swimmers to the point that they’re willing to cheat to win? And why have some countries resorted to secretly giving their athletes drugs and conspiring to falsify test results just to win a few more medals?
Even the best, most famous swimmers in the world have been suspended for taking banned substances.
So how many people are cheating? How did we get to this point? And why is doping still happening to this day? It’s complicated. And the consequences are dangerous, not only for the health of swimmers, but for the integrity of the sport itself.
Let’s take a look at some famous doping scandals in swimming, and what can be done to stop more cheating from happening.
Doping Scandals in Swimming
East Germany, 1970s
The most famous doping scandal to ever happen in swimming went down in the 1970s.
At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, the women’s swim team from the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, absolutely dominated in the pool. They won 10 out of 11 individual events and broke a bunch of world records.
The majority of East German athletes at the 1976 Games were doping…but they probably didn’t know it. East Germany passed a secret policy that allowed officials and coaches to give athletes steroids to improve performance. This rule covered a variety of sports, including swimming.
From 1973 to 1989, almost 10,000 athletes had no idea their coaches were giving them anabolic steroids mixed in with their usual vitamins. Some athletes also got testosterone injections, which they thought were just vitamin cocktails.
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The steroids increased muscle mass and reduced recovery time, which was just what East German officials wanted. They were trying to build a powerhouse reputation in sports.
Watching at the races and seeing the women from East Germany makes you scratch your head and wonder how they got away with it.
The East German team did so well that swimmers from other countries started calling them out for cheating. But those whistleblowers were called sore losers, and eventually they had to accept that cheaters were going to be rewarded for their behavior.
What would have been an incredible Olympics for the swimmers who played fair turned out to be a frustrating, demoralizing experience where cheaters got to shine.
But the East Germans didn’t shine for much longer. Eventually, Germany owned up to the doping. Coaches and officials were convicted for giving young athletes drugs without their knowledge.
And as they got older, the athletes who were doped started experiencing severe health issues. Female athletes gave birth to babies with birth defects and deformities. Some women also had fertility issues alongside other health problems, like liver and heart conditions.
It has been said that East German officials knew about the dangerous effects of steroids in the early 1970s, but they continued to give athletes the drugs anyway. Winning was just too important. But was it really worth it?
So, now that we know the truth, all of the East German swimmers’ records and medals have been stripped away, right? Nope.
The International Olympic Committee has said that the East German athletes never tested positive for any performance enhancing drugs, so their accomplishments will still stand in the record books.
In the end, it’s the athletes who have to deal with the long-term effects of their steroid use, whether they knew they were taking them or not. They’re stuck with a lifetime of health issues, all for a few gold medals.
After a scandal as big as East Germany’s doping, you’d think people would have learned their lesson, and played fair from then on.
About 20 years later, Chinese swimmer Yuan Yuan was suspended for four years after vials of human growth hormone were found in her luggage. She was on her way to the 1998 World Championships in Perth, Australia.
Her coach, who placed the drugs in her suitcase, was suspended for 15 years.
At that same World Championships, four more Chinese swimmers were suspended after they tested positive for a banned diuretic.
Diuretics change the balance of water and salts in the body, which can help athletes pass drug tests that require a urine sample.
Modern Cases of Doping
And as you’ve probably guessed by now, doping has continued to muddy the waters of swimming to this day.
Yes, even some of the most decorated Olympic swimmers of all time have served suspensions for using banned substances.
Ryan Lochte was suspended in 2018 for getting an IV infusion that was larger than the US Anti Doping Agency’s 100-milliliter limit. He was clear that the infusion was just vitamins and nothing illegal, but regardless of that, he still broke the rules.
In 2019, American Olympic medalist Conor Dwyer ended up retiring from swimming early after he received a 20-month suspension for inserting testosterone pellets into his body. He was adamant that he didn’t think the procedure would be an issue, but it was, and his career was cut short.
Michael Phelps has also been suspended three times by USA Swimming, but not for taking performance enhancing drugs. He was suspended in 2004 and 2014 for drunk driving, and again in 2009 for being photographed smoking marijuana.
In the 2009 case, USA Swimming was clear that no anti-doping rules were violated. They just wanted to send Michael a message that his behavior would not be tolerated.
Yuliya Efimova, Russia
Russian breaststroker Yuliya Efimova has also made headlines for doping and returned to competition after a suspension, much to her competitors’ disappointment.
In 2013, Yuliya tested positive for DHEA, a banned supplement that she said she bought at a drugstore. She was suspended from competition from October 2013 to February 2015.
And in 2016, she tested positive for meldonium, a substance that has been shown to improve endurance and speed up recovery. She was suspended briefly for this, but was eventually cleared to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the day after the opening ceremonies.
She claims she purchased the DHEA by mistake, and that she stopped taking meldonium when it was officially banned in early 2016.
Regardless, Yuliya’s presence at the 2016 Olympics angered her competitors, especially Lilly King, who publicly criticized Yulia and said she should receive a lifetime ban from competition.
What do you think? Were Yuliya’s infractions enough to warrant a lifetime ban? Or did she deserve another chance?
Sun Yang, China
Speaking of second chances, the most famous swimming doping case in recent news has to do with Chinese Olympic champion Sun Yang.
He was first suspended in 2014 after he tested positive for a stimulant. And in 2019 he was suspended again!
Allegedly, he didn’t cooperate with testing officials when they visited his home for a routine drug test and he destroyed his testing containers because he thought the testing wasn’t in compliance with the rules.
He ended up receiving an eight-year ban from competition in 2019. That’s the maximum possible suspension. But after an appeal, Sun’s suspension was reduced to four years and three months in 2021. That means that if he’s in the clear for Paris 2024, Sun could make a comeback.
We could speculate for hours about who is and isn’t doping. Who is doping on purpose and who isn’t? There are tons of other doping allegations out there. In most cases we’ll never know the full truth. All we can do is hope that athletes want to compete clean, and that they follow through on that promise.
How Doping Testing Works
To keep athletes accountable to their commitment, they’re tested regularly by national and international anti-doping authorities.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) sets the standard for banned substances worldwide, but each country also has its own anti-doping agency that works on a smaller scale.
WADA bans over 190 different substances. Everything from steroids to stimulants to narcotics to supplements and lots of things in between. Even some medications are banned, and athletes must get a medical exemption to take them if they have a health issue that requires it.
Of all the banned substances, anabolic steroids are the most commonly used drugs in swimming.
To avoid testing positive, athletes who dope may stop taking their drugs of choice a few months before competition to make sure their bodies can purge the drug before testing, but that isn’t a foolproof way to get a negative test.
Anti-doping agencies, like the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), do surprise tests to make sure athletes are training and competing clean, all the time. Athletes who receive funding from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee must comply with USADA guidelines.
Athletes must provide their whereabouts to USADA so they can be tested outside of competition.
That means that a USADA representative could show up at your house on a random Tuesday at 7am without any notice and make you take a drug test.
Effects of Doping
Ask most elite swimmers, and they’ll tell you that there’s probably doping going on in swimming.
When the pressure is on, swimmers – or their coaches – end up turning to drugs to fill the gaps or give themselves an unfair advantage.
Often the long term side effects aren’t worth the performance boost in the short term. Steroid users could experience heart issues, high cholesterol, aggression and mental health issues, liver abnormalities, infertility, and baldness. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Obviously, doping goes far beyond swimming. Athletes in a bunch of different sports have been caught taking illegal, performance-enhancing drugs, from Lance Armstrong to Alex Rodriguez.
As much as we wish everyone would play fair, there will probably always be some level of doping in sports, no matter what. It’s the sad reality.
All we can hope for is that the vast majority of athletes continue to train and compete drug free. The way swimming was meant to be.
Let us know what you think in the comments: Are current doping regulations strong enough, or should changes be made to make things more strict?