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Deja Vu

August 2, 2012

Super Strength


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2012: Sixteen-year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen, a member of the Chinese Olympic team, is at the center of increasingly sharp questions about illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Shiwen, who has not tested positive for any banned substances, recently beat a women’s and men’s world record, swimming part of the 400 individual medley faster than the male winner of that race, American Ryan Lochte. Shiwen’s coaches and fellow competitors have insisted her success can be attributed to talent and hard work, but other officials have raised the possibility of cheating via drug use. The Huffington Post reports:

On Monday, John Leonard, the head of the American Swimming Coaches Association but not a member of the U.S. Olympic staff, was among those openly questioning Ye's legitimacy.

The Guardian newspaper quoted him as saying the last 100 meters of her 400 IM “was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers.”

“History in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I put quotation marks around this, ‘unbelievable,’ history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved,” Leonard was quoted as saying.

1904: A lack of formal drug policy (or effective testing) made the 1904 Olympic games in St. Louis, Missouri a hotbed of illicit athletic behavior. A look back at the men’s marathon event, published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shed light on a few of the ways competitors tried to game the system:

Alice Roosevelt, daughter of the President, was about to place his medal around his neck when he was exposed as a fraud. He had hitched a lift in a friend’s car for 11 miles. So if Lorz hadn’t won who had? The crowd had to wait another 15 minutes to find out. With nearly three and a half hours gone, Thomas Hicks staggered into the stadium more dead than alive. He’d almost given up after 16 miles, but his handlers had forced him to continue. He crossed the finish line with almost six minutes to spare over Corey. The Irishman, Newton, beat little Felix Carvajal for the bronze. His gregarious nature had cost the Cuban a medal.

Hicks—like the original marathon runner, Pheidippides—nearly paid for his exertions with his life. As soon as the race was over he was rushed to the hospital, where he spent 24 hours on the danger list. Photographs taken at the time reveal a man in a total stupor. It didn’t take long for the athletics world to find out why—in order to keep him in the race his supporters had forced him to drink, at every stop, copious amounts of brandy laced with strychnine.

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The brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over we realize this: that the human has been roughly handled, but that it has advanced.
Victor Hugo, 1862
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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