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It's Impossible To Guarantee That The Rio Games Will Be Drug Free

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A World Anti-Doping Agency report this week confirmed what many had long suspected - for years, the Russian government ran a widespread doping program for its Olympic athletes. And that got commentator Kevin Blackistone thinking about some changes that could be made to the Olympic medal ceremony.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE, BYLINE: Before a university colleague of mine announces the seniors preparing to walk across the graduation stage, she says, will all students who believe they are here to accept their diploma please come forward - believe? Not until after grades have been calculated, she told me, are diplomas delivered. After all, what institution wants to validate what supposedly took years of sacrifice and hard work if it was unearned? The Olympics, that's what.

The latest tradition of the Olympics, which return next month in Rio, is the stripping of medals won through ill-gotten means, such as performance-enhancing drugs, and the re-rewarding of them to deserving athletes. We're familiar with many Olympic traditions - the Parade of Nations. We follow, though not as uncomfortably as we should, the Torch Relay, an idea birthed by Hitler's 1936 Summer Games. We know the Olympic flame. We anticipate the medal ceremony, when the elite are draped in gold, silver and bronze.

And now, we expect the announcements of shame, which often come after everyone's gone home. There were at least 11 medal-winners from London 2012 stripped of their honors because they were caught doping. One was a Russian who blew the whistle on her country's systematic program of misappropriating drugs for athletic performance enhancement. As a result, Olympic bosses banned the Russian track and field team from the Rio Games. A total Russian ban could soon follow. But Russia's absence doesn't guarantee that the Rio Games will be drug-free.

Drug-cheating is universal among countries that can afford it. At least eight medal winners from six countries were stripped of their awards from the 2008 Beijing Games because of drugs. The 2004 Athens Games saw 13 athletes asked to return their medals because of doping, including Americans Tyler Hamilton and Crystal Cox. So the list has gone since 1968, when the Olympics first started testing.

What is particularly worrisome about Rio is that, last month, the World Anti-Doping Agency deemed its testing lab as being below standards. If the lab isn't up to snuff, athletes' samples will be shipped elsewhere, making the process more complicated and in danger of being compromised, which brings me back to the solution suggested by college graduations. Announce that the winners and runner-ups are, as we say, in political season parlance, presumptive. Give them an Olympic receipt for medals to be redeemed later, once their grades are in and proven to be clean.

MONTAGNE: Kevin Blackistone is a columnist for The Washington Post and teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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