The sixth time Keith Richards almost died, it was the strychnine that did it. It had been cut into his dope, in what William Burroughs called a “hot shot”. It left Richards paralysed but awake, being prodded by his worried friends. “I could listen to everyone,” Richards said, “and they were like, ‘He’s dead, he’s dead!’ Waving their fingers and pushing me about.” Of all the pills, powders, uppers and downers, this one, Richards reckoned, was the very worst. Strychnine is lethal. It did for Emily Inglethorpe in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the Saint-Mérans in The Count of Monte Cristo. It is also a stimulant. Which was why the Kyrgyz weightlifter Izzat Artykov was using it in Rio this summer.
Artykov was a medallist for all of nine days. He won a bronze in the first week of the Games, then had it taken away in the second. He appealed, and lost. Which made him the first medallist from Rio to be caught doping. The last in that particular list will not be known for a long while yet. Eight years after Beijing, they are still sifting through the samples and stripping medals from some of the winners at those Olympics. Given that, and the exposure of Russia’s doping program, then, dangerous as strychnine is, it felt like only one of several potent poisons coursing through Rio this summer, during an Olympics infected with suspicion and doubt.
Post-race press conferences tend to be pro forma. Often as not the press will ask the athletes how it feels, what it means, whether they are happy or sad. At this Olympics another, tougher, question came up over and over again: why should we believe you’re clean? Versions of it were put to Almaz Ayana after she had broken the world record in the 10,000m, Wayde van Niekerk after he had broken the world record in the 400m, Mo Farah after both the 5,000m and 10,000m finals, and many others. In Rio, the most spectacular victories inspired the most scepticism, the wins which would once have been the most celebrated provoked the gravest misgivings. The sorry state the sport is in means that though athletes are not guilty, they are also not free from suspicion.
We may as well have asked why a raven is like a writing desk. Because there isn’t a satisfactory answer. Unlike Artykov, neither Farah, Van Niekerk, nor Ayana has failed a drug test. But negative results do not count as proof positive, not after we heard Lance Armstrong talk about how he had passed 500 tests in his 20-year career. All the athletes could do, then, is exactly what those three did – insist they are clean and let the rest of us examine the evidence we have, weigh the arguments for and against, and reach our own conclusions about whether we feel can believe them.
There is a set of questions you can run through. Is that athlete’s progress part of a clear pattern of improvement? Or has there been a spike in their performance? If so, how old were they when it happened and how do they explain it? Have they ever missed a test? Have they ever failed a test? How about their training partners? Their team‑mates? What history does their coach have? Do they compete for a country with a rigorous anti-doping program? Do they show any physical symptoms that could conceivably be side-effects? A sudden bout of acne? A new pair of braces? Even then there are no clear answers, only a circumstantial list of checks and ticks. And the process soon becomes corrosive.
Sebastian Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, says it was this way in his day. But back then those conversations took place in private. Now they spill over from social media into the public domain. And besides, after Armstrong and countless other cases, the public and the press are that much better educated, that much more disillusioned. The words we use to describe athletic achievements – incredible, unbelievable, extraordinary – now seem loaded with new connotations. Informed spectators have to ask themselves whether they are willing to again suspend their disbelief on behalf of the athletes they see compete, as some once did for Armstrong and so many others.
And whatever the answer to that question, the fact that it’s even asked cannot but spoil the sport. After Ayana’s win in the 10,000m, Malcolm Gladwell, a keen track and field fan, wrote in the New Yorker: “We witnessed one of the greatest performances in running history, and we had no idea whether to react with awe or with disdain.” Fans do not pay for tickets because they prize feeling that kind of confusion. Which is why Richard McLaren, who led Wada’s investigation into Russia’s doping, told Sky Sports this week that he believes “if sport doesn’t start to change the public is going to be uninterested in sport and move on to watch something else”.
The leaks released this past week by the Fancy Bears hacking team have made this mess worse. The hackers’ attempts to draw a moral equivalence between the Therapeutic Use Exemptions they have exposed and Russia’s state doping program are a nonsense. But, as plenty of people have testified in recent days, the abuse of TUEs is a legitimate issue, and another new reason for fans to start second-guessing their sports. In March the Wada president, Sir Craig Reedie, said: “The public mood has soured, cynicism has prevailed: there is a general feeling that ‘they are all at it’.” Six months on, the poison is still spreading. At least death by strychnine is quick.