Sour Doping Grapes?

Die Zeit has engaged a number of German ex-Olympians as commentators on the current Beijing Games, among which Heike Henkel, the German (female) high-jumper who won the gold medal in that event in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (among other athletic honors). In an interview posted on that newspaper’s website (Heike Henkel Puts Phelps’ World Records in Doubt) she admittedly has no unkind words specifically about the validity of achievements in this year’s women’s high-jump – but probably only because that competition is scheduled to start next Thursday! In the meantime, she has plenty to say on the subject of doping and its effect on athletics and athletes.

As a former member of that elite fraternity of medal-winning Olympic athletes, she can offer an interesting insider’s perspective on the whole doping issue. But it’s probably more useful to view her constituency in particular as being that cohort of past Olympic athletes whose achievements and athletic records are now being surpassed across-the-board – even though, as we recently discussed on this site, there is a serious question whether those athletic achievements can justly be compared across time in view of the new conditions for present-day athletes’ performances.

In part, as we saw in that previous blog-post in the case of swimming, these new conditions involve improved installations in which and equipment with which to perform. But ultimately the question comes down to tinkering with the human body itself, measures summarized by the word “doping” and which for the most part are banned in international competition, although their actual susceptibility to detection varies widely. In the interview Henkel declares about Michael Phelps “When I . . . see his times, I become skeptical. I’m asking myself: How is that possible without supporting means? That it is only because of his special swimsuit that he swims so fast I cannot imagine.”

We All Need Another Hero

Still, she claims to be torn on the subject, wanting to believe that it can be true, because “We long after Olympic heroes.” Unfortunately, though, the steady series of doping scandals over the years have understandably lowered the credibility of sports achievements generally: “a large part of the Public has lost their belief,” she says. Interviewer Michael Schlieben poses the assertion by one Angel Heredia, a steroids-provider involved in the BALCO scandal, who maintains that every runner involved in the 100 meter [spring] final is doping and Henkel, drawing on her own experiences in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, cannot gainsay the statement. After all, she personally knows of athletic trainers present at the Beijing Olympics with public histories of having worked with doping in the past.

One understandable reaction to such public statements from a retired athlete is of course to write them all off to jealousy at having their past achievements surpassed. Henkel does not reinforce her own credibility when, early in the interview, she also expresses her displeasure at how Phelps chooses to exult after his victories: he is much too “aggressive” in how he chooses to celebrate, she finds, acting like he had just won some fight rather than purely overjoyed. But one of her points does merit greater attention. She is also a veteran of the German Anti-Doping Agency (whose acronym, perhaps amusingly, is NADA), and knows how hard it is to track down and sanction doping – one reason being that precious little money is allocated either to do that or to try to prevent doping through educational campaigns among younger athletes. This might be the case only in Germany, but I doubt it. Perhaps if the public truly wants “clean” games, redressing this lack of anti-doping financing would be the best means to get started.

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