Blood, Honor, and Shame

by Casey Barrett

Stamping Your Blood Passport on the Olympic Journey

One fine morning, maybe tomorrow, a stranger will show up at your door and put a needle in your arm. You will not resist. You have no choice. This stranger, who has arrived without warning, will open a bag with a syringe, a few vials, and an assortment of official documents which you will sign with great seriousness. You will roll up your sleeve as he sits across from you. He will lean forward and tell you that you’ll feel a slight pinch. You will wince and look away as the needle breaks your skin. After the vials have been filled with a sufficient amount of your blood, the stranger will pack his bags and leave. You will probably never see him again.

If you’re currently ranked in the top 25 in the world in any event, this is your reality. You’ve probably never given it a second thought. If it helps keep our sport clean, we must support it, right? Like criticizing military troops or raising taxes, this appears to be one of those subjects where dissent is not an option. If you have a problem with blood testing, you must have something to hide. Never mind the dark privacy-stealing invasiveness of the act itself. If you carry that Olympic dream, what’s in your body is not your own. It is up for display and dissection, an open-book passport produced by needle-wielding strangers…

Last summer in Shanghai, the FINA Bureau approved a pilot program for the long-considered ‘Biological Passport’. The World Anti-Doping Agency subsequently signed off on these passports, meaning that in the lead-up to London more athletes than ever before will be subjected to blood testing, both in and out of competition. In a statement, FINA called the Athletes Biological Passport “the most advanced tool in the fight against doping in Sport.” The new legislation calls for a steep increase in blood testing, requiring that 10% of all samples taken from athletes are blood instead of urine.

Why is blood better than piss? For the simple reason that it can detect some of the favored forms of cheating that don’t show up in urine, ie Human Growth Hormone, EPO, and blood doping… Not that we have any reason to suspect any recent Olympic medalists of abusing such things… So, this should be a good thing, right? More opportunity to catch the guilty, the more chance we have to witness clean, untainted achievement at next summer’s Games. In theory it sounds like a long overdue upgrade in the ever-losing battle against doping. So then why does the reality of blood testing feel like we’re entering a Stasi-esque sports state of freedomless submission for the world’s greatest athletes?

Is this where Olympic sport has arrived? Not only is the answer a clear and obvious ‘yes’, the total lack of questioning from any athletes or coaches indicates that we’re so far gone, so conditioned to a culture of sporting suspicion that we are literally willing do to anything to prove our innocence. Actually, innocence is the wrong word: we’re willing to do anything to prove we belong at the Olympics. Standards of innocence are not only constantly changing, so too is the very definition of the word from country to country.

Regardless of where you come from, there’s no worse fear for an athlete than testing positive. Especially when innocent. We know these tests are subject to interpretation – hence the lengthy battles that inevitably ensue when an apparent ‘false positive’ comes back. Will blood provide conclusive evidence of exactly what’s going on in a body? Will it prevent situations like the tragic case of Jessica Hardy three years ago, when an athlete’s Olympic dream was revoked thanks to a positive test that wasn’t quite Positive? Or will a questionable change in blood levels on your new passport lead to further debate, further excuses to explain away dubious bodily impurities?

Perhaps it’s time to take the mission for clean sport in an entirely new direction. Rather than a standard built on blood and piss, why not something even more personal — like honor and shame.

When I was in 4th grade, I was introduced to something called the Honor Code. On every test or quiz, we were required to write the following pledge on the back: “On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received aid on this paper.” It was drilled into us as a sacred promise. Breaking it would be the highest, most horrible sin of all. Physical violence against a classmate at recess was more socially acceptable than glancing at his paper during a test. Ok, we all lose our temper sometimes, but to lose your honor? It was unthinkable. There was no greater shame than being a cheater.

Clearly, 4th Graders are slightly more impressionable than elite world class athletes. Or maybe they just have more honor.

Before you scoff at this notion of an ‘Honor Code’ being more powerful, more of a deterrent than a needle in an arm or urine in a cup, consider the standard of our courts of law. Does every witness submit to a lie detector test before taking the stand? No, instead they sit down, put their hand on the Bible, raise the other hand and recite that they ‘promise to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.’

It’s this court-bound honor code that seals the fate of criminals – or acquits the falsely accused. The promise to tell the truth is enough to convict murderers. But in sport we apparently need much more. We need proof in the form of bodily fluids.

Of course, the procession of iconic athletes – from Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens to Lance Armstrong – who have brazenly lied under oath proves that raising a hand and taking a sacred vow of truth is not exactly taken seriously by all. The Pulitzer-prize winning journalist James B. Stewart even wrote a book on this erosion of truth-telling on the stand. His book Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America makes the case that we’ve become “a society where perjury is the norm.” And he goes on to lay out the cases of some of our most high-profile promise breakers, from Bonds to Bernie Madoff to Martha Stewart.

Still, as someone who’s taken big blind gulps of the Olympic Kool Aid, who believes that the Olympic standard is something that transcends sport, and someone who competed with no more than Advil and an asthma inhaler in his system, the idea of blood testing is troubling. Instead, moments before every Olympic final, before marching from the Ready Room, why not line up every athlete and force them to place a hand on a Bible and swear that: “On my honor, I pledge that I am a clean athlete who has never taken anything illegal that may enhance my performance.”

Call it the Competitor’s Code, and like the trials of Bonds, Clemens, Armstrong, et all, chase down those suspected of breaking this pledge, and publicly shame them as the criminals of sport that they are.

If you can dive in and compete with a clean conscience after making that promise, then may the best swimmer win. But we know such utopian notions of honor and pure competition won’t be happening anytime soon. Instead, we need needle-wielding strangers to knock on your door tomorrow morning…