Doping at the Olympic Games

IOC ignored doping until 1988 when a Canadian sprinter tested positive. This article covers key doping events in the history of the Olympic Games.


The year is 1960. Rome is the host of the Olympic Summer Games. On August 26th, the Team Time Trial 100km road cycling event is taking place. In 40 degrees Celsius, Knud Enemark Jensen and the Danish team is riding in the streets of the Italian capital. During the race Jensen tells his teammates he feels dizzy. He is being aided by his team-mates, but when one of them let go, Jensen collapses and fractures his skull on the pavement.

The autopsy performed on the cyclist revealed traces of amphetamine. This leads to mounting pressure for sports authorities to introduce drug testing.

It would take 7 years until the International Olympic Committee (IOC) institutes its Medical Commission and sets up its first list of prohibited substances. And the year after, at the Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France and the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico, doping controls are first introduced.

First doping case was a Swede

The first athlete to be caught for doping at any Olympic Games is Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall from Sweden. He competed in Modern Penthalon where the team earned a bronze-medal.

Four years later at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich – a game that is more famous for other – and far worse – incidents, 7 athletes out of 2049 tested, was found to have used banned substances. The same year a hockey player tested positive for ephedrine. A total of 211 athletes were tested at the Winter Games in Sapporo.

And the number of athletes who tested positive for doping continued to grow. In 1976 in Montreal 11 athletes tested positive. Eight years later, in 1984, 12 athletes tested positive at the Games in Los Angeles.

In total, 31 athletes had been disqualified from the Olympic Games in the games before 1988 and the Canadian sprinter tested positive.

Moscow – the “cleanest” games ever

Four years before there were reported no positive tests during in Moscow, Russia. The Games were boycotted by many western countries due to the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Many sport leaders did not think the Summer Games that year were clean.

20% were using doping

And they were right. Manfred Donike, a German biochemist who was the head of the drug laboratory in Cologne (Germany), had developed a test method to detect testosterone. He did an analysis on the samples collected the games in the Russian capital. This analysis showed that as many as 20% of all the athletes would have failed his test.

This includes 16 gold medalists. Thanks to Donike, testosterone was put on the banned substances list governed by the IOC two years later.

Health issues

Many of the athletes who participated at the Games has later been diagnosed with health conditions that is closely related to use of high doses of testosterone.

The fastest man tests positive

The date shows September 24 in the year 1988. More or less everyone in the world is watching the 100 meters finals at the Olympic Games in Seoul in South Korea. Eight men has lined up in their starting position and are ready to show the world who is the fastest man on earth. Among them Ben Johnson from Canada.

It takes him 9.79 seconds to cross the finishing line. A new world record. It will not last long as doping analysis has improved since the last Games. The following day the news hits the event. The fastest man on earth has tested positive for Stanozolol – a steroid.

The dirtiest race in history

Johnson and his coach claimed he was not the only one using prohibited substances in that race, he was just happened to be the one getting caught. The 100-meter final has later been dubbed “the dirtiest race in history” because only 2 of the 8 runners remained clean throughout their careers.

In 1989 Donike retested 88 samples taken at the Seoul Olympics and estimated that 50 athletes were guilty of drug abuse. Since the cards linking samples to names were no longer available, no action was taken.

Donike – an important man in the world of sports in the 1980s

Because of the work Donike did to fight doping in sport, he was put on the list of the 4 most important men in the world of sport in the 1980s. The list was published by Los Angeles Times in 1989. Donike passed away in 1995 after suffering a heart attack.

2004 and IOC starts storing samples for re-testing

As of 2004 no athlete who has participated at an Olympic Game can feel safe if they have used a banned substance. From 2004 until 2016 the IOC stored the samples for eight years. After 2016 samples are now stored for ten years.

The IOC Sample Re-analysis program has been very effective. An example of this is the samples re-tested from the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing (2008) and London (2012). Retesting of the samples from Beijing resulted in more than 65 athletes being banned. That is a high number, but the results from London were more chocking. More than 70 athletes were caught and suspended after testing positive for banned substances. In many of the cases from both games the banned substance used was dehydrochloromethyltestosterone (Oral Turinabol).

Athletes from Winter Olympics has also been caught after the Games. Analysis from the Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010, where they only tested medalists and all Russian athletes, resulted in one athlete testing positive.

And the reason why the athletes were caught – a new analysis method had been developed at the laboratory in Cologne.

IOC President Thomas Bach says this about the Re-analysis programme: This wide ranging re-analysis is another demonstration of the IOC’s commitment to fight against doping and to protect clean athletes.

In total, and according to numbers from the IOC, 160 athletes has so far tested positive for a banned substance after re-testing.

Sochi and the sample swapping doping scheme

In the history of doping at the Olympics, no scandal is bigger than the doping system the Russians came up with before and during the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.

It was simple and clever. Athletes had their samples collected, tested and stored – if they were clean – long before the Games. During the Games they could use prohibited substances knowing they would not be caught. Why? The samples collected during the Games would be swapped with the clean ones.

The whistleblower

This scheme would not be revealed if it hadn’t been for the former Director of the Moscow Laboratory, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, had told the New York Times about what went on before and during the Games. Rodchenkov also participated in the Netflix documentary Icarus where he reveals everything that happened before Sochi and during the Games.

Rodchenkov has later stated that it was the Russian ministry of sport who demanded doping throughout the Sochi games to better ensure the success of its sportspeople. The former Director is now living in an unknown location in the USA.

The aftermath of the coverup operation

After the Games WADA requests data from the Moscow Laboratory. It became obvious that the data was being altered prior to and while WADA were forensically copied by WADA Intelligence and Investigations. This resulted in RUSADA being declared non-compiant with the World Anti-Doping Code in 2020.

The operation named “Operation Lims” – named as the acronym of Laboratory Information Management System – has resulted in more than 200 Russian athletes being sanctioned by 17 anti-doping organisations. 73 has been charged (as of May 18th, 2023). 182 cases were at the time still under investigation.

Doping after 2014

As a direct result of the Doping program revealed at the Olympic Games in Sochi, The International Testing Agency was set up. The Agency is now responsible for running testing programs during any Olympic Games.

The number of athletes who test positive during – or prior – to the Games are fewer. Statistics show that nine athletes tested positive in relation to the 2020 Tokyo Games that were held in 2021. In Rio in 2016 the numbers were 16. The stored samples from these Games have not been re-tested yet.


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