The 2016 Olympic Games begin in a few days and even before this 31st edition has begun, controversy has erupted over the approaches of individuals and nations in their quest for success. The systematic, state-run cheating led by the Russian Ministry of Sport at both the 2012 London Olympic Games and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games has been exposed, drawing widespread vitriol. But is this anger warranted, and should the Russian team be banned?
The McLaren Report identifies use of illegal performance-enhancing substances across multiple sports, and pulls no punches in its description of what occurred. It found that, "the Russian Minister of Sport directed, controlled and oversaw the manipulation of athletes' analytical results or sample swapping with the active participation of the FSB, CSP and both the Moscow and Sochi laboratories."
The outrage and condemnation has been loud and vociferous. But this type of activity is not new. It has a long and sordid history going back many decades, involving many athletes across multiple sports. I know of a number of ex-Olympians who are convinced that their competitors were utilising illegal, performance-enhancing substances but, unable to prove it, are left wondering what would have been if their competitors had been clean.
In other cases, there are allegations that competitors in female categories of the Olympics and other world-class sporting events in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s were males, but their true gender was "concealed".
These issues evoke anger at the injustice involved, but is this response justified? In its essence, sport is a contrived human activity involving the invention of games or activities that allow us to compete to find out who is the fastest, strongest, or most skilled. Some characteristics people are born with predispose them to having greater abilities in particular tasks than others. With practice, training, nutrition and time, people can become more expert at an activity, to the point that they can out-compete another.
Where things become murky is where people possessing similar physiological characteristics have naturally different levels of attributes that enhance human performance in certain activities.
For example, the natural level of the hormone testosterone, the presence of fast-twitch muscle fibres, or the level of red blood cells can vary significantly from person to person.
This issue of competitive advantage becomes even more opaque with the now common practice of using training techniques that sport science has revealed enhance athletic performance. It is common for endurance athletes to train at high altitudes for example, or in human-made structures containing lower levels of oxygen in the air, which stimulates the body to produce more red-blood cells, enhancing energy and endurance.
There is no doubt that our rising use of sports science and increased understanding of human physiology and biochemistry has led to significant improvements in human performance. So how do we decide what is acceptable and what is not?
We do this through the mutually agreed set of rules under which athletes agree to compete, ensuring the contest between competitors is based on their natural abilities and talents.
Where we quite rightly object is when people make a deliberate choice to break the rules, to give themselves an advantage. This, after all, is the definition of a "cheat", and cheats deserve the punishment of being banned from competing. It's pretty basic really - play by the rules or don't play at all. Russia's national sporting organisations have not. Team Russia should withdraw from the Rio Olympics, or be made to.