Stories

Doping cheats athletes of glory — and big paydays

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

When American shot-putter Adam Nelson learned he had won the 2004 Olympic gold medal, he didn't feel elation —he could only contemplate what he had lost. That's because his triumph was confirmed in a laboratory years later, when the International Olympic Committee determined that the man he lost to, Ukraine's Yuriy Bilonoh, used steroids to win. Nelson got his medal in 2013 during a rushed meeting with an IOC official outside Burger King at the Atlanta Airport.

Why it matters: In 2016, the IOC disclosed that doping cheats had robbed dozens of athletes of their deserved medals. For many of those vindicated, any thrill has been clipped by the reality of lost windfalls.

Nelson reckons he lost $2.5 million in income. That accounting draws attention to the reality that, despite the embarrassment to a clutch of sports programs, particularly in Russia and other former Soviet republics, no one believes the doping arms race will stop. The stakes are too high.

The job of Olympic athlete is among the most respected on the planet, often worth lifelong glory and millions in sponsorship deals and appearance fees —if you are awarded what you deserve, when you deserve it. "A gold medal is most valuable at the actual moment you win it, but the color fades over time," Nelson tells Axios. "It doesn't matter if you win it eight years later."

With the increased unmasking of doping violations, Nelson's experience is shared by a growing number of top athletes in track and field and other Olympic sports. Officials are using new techniques to detect banned substances in stored fluid samples, allowing them to strip recognition from athletes who dope and upgrade the medals awarded to those who don't.

Feast or famine: Nelson estimates that the eight-year lag amounted to $2.5 million in lost sponsorship deals and appearance fees over five years. "There will never be an opportunity to go back and reap those rewards," he says.

  • A 2012 survey conducted by the USA Track and Field Foundation found that only half the U.S. athletes ranked top ten in their events make more than $15,000 a year in prize money, sponsorships, and appearance fees.
  • According to sports agent Merhawi Keflezighi, top track and field stars can earn much more, but the window is small for securing higher-paying sponsorship contracts, earning bonus payments for medaling at World Championships and the Olympic Games events, and earning higher appearance fees.
  • Most elite track and field athletes earn the bulk of their career income in the years immediately following a medal victory, he told Axios.

The age of doping scandals: There's no way to know how many Olympians have used illicit substances to improve their performances, but more are getting caught today in part due to stricter and more sophisticated oversight. New testing protocols, like the maintenance of "biological passports," a record of a competitor's normal blood and urine chemistry, have been adopted by the World Antidoping Agency and other oversight bodies. But some cheaters stay a step ahead of testers, and, as in the case of Bilonoh, it often takes the development of new testing methods to get caught.

How to support honest athletes: The incentives to dope are particularly strong in track and field, where earnings are so unevenly distributed and the benefits to performance from steroids can be great. The sport's governing body, the IAAF, has struggled even to persuade some doping cheats to return prize money, let alone provide honest athletes with anything close to full restitution. Critics have accused the IAAF of policing doping only half heartedly, afraid to publicize scandal or tarnish the reputations of famous athletes. Outside of reforming oversight, other changes could be made to the way athletes are remunerated to make cheating less tempting, like:

  • Increase bonuses paid by USA Track and Field to Olympic athletes from $10k to a figure closer to the average household income in the U.S. of roughly $55k.
  • Reform contract standards so that sponsors honor performance bonuses after an athlete is retroactively awarded a medal.

For the love of the game: In 2000, the IOC changed the Olympic oath to include a promise to "commit ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs." Nelson sees this as a noble cause, even if it may be a lost one, too. After learning what had been stolen from him, he went through the typical stages of grief. But now he says what nags at him more than lost income is the knowledge that future athletes may be robbed of the chance at honest competition. "The thing that makes sports fantastic is watching competition on a level playing field," he says. "Throw PEDs in the mix, and it becomes not about how good you are, but how good your doctor is."