The casual viewer of the Pyeongchang Olympics could be forgiven for wondering just how many athletes are doped after a raft of recent revelations in winter sports, despite “every effort” to crack down.
Endurance sports such as cross-country skiing and biathlon have come under the most scrutiny, but – much like the Summer Olympics – no discipline has been completely unscathed in the build-up to the Games, which open on Friday.
Russian athletes deemed “clean” will compete under a neutral flag after their country was banned for a well-orchestrated drugs cheating system four years ago that allegedly had links all the way to the Kremlin.
Speaking on the eve of the Games in South Korea, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Craig Reedie attempted to assuage the concerns of athletes who fear their rivals could dope their way to gold.
There had been “very substantial” testing ahead of the Games, he said, adding: “I hope (that) will give the athletes comfort that they are in a fair and honest competition.
“Every effort has been made to provide a proper playing field for the athletes and I hope, more than anything else, that at the end of the Games that is what it will be.”
But recent Winter Games reveal grounds for scepticism.
Ahead of the Olympics, British newspaper the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD said they had been passed a database showing that more than 50 cross-country skiers set to compete in South Korea returned abnormal readings between 2001 and 2010.
Following Salt Lake City in 2002, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) increased its scrutiny after Spain’s Johann Muehlegg and four others were caught doping and stripped of their medals.
At the 2006 Turin Games, doping products were discovered in a chalet used by a coach involved with Austria’s cross-country skiing team. He fled the Games but was caught at a police roadblock.
COCKTAIL OF STEROIDS
However, doping at the Winter Olympics reached its nadir with the Russian plot four years ago in Sochi.
The 2014 Games, hosted at enormous cost by Russia in the Black Sea resort, marked a new low with allegations of state-sponsored doping and the mass switching of test samples in favour of Russians.
The former director of the Moscow anti-doping lab Grigory Rodchenkov – now in exile, fearing for his life and cooperating with investigators – admitted he fine-tuned a muscle-building cocktail of steroids to ensure Russian competitors won medals on home soil.
And they inevitably did, as Russia soared to the top of the medals table – a triumph for President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has always denied accusations that it mounted a system of state-sponsored doping and has accused Rodchenkov of acting alone.
WADA commissioned Canadian professor Richard McLaren to compile a report that focused suspicion on hundreds of athletes, with skating, ice hockey, biathlon and even curling on a long list of winter and summer Olympic sports under scrutiny.
Endurance athletes in Pyeongchang will be heavily tested for the endurance booster EPO, and anti-doping officials fear that athletes have taken to using tiny, so-called “micro” doses to avoid detection. In response, testers will be taking ever more frequent samples.
“EPO micro-doses disappear quickly so doses are taken almost every day in the hope of escaping testers,” Xavier Bigard, of France’s national anti-doping agency, told AFP.
He also warned that the doses were likely to be taken out of competition to aid training and recuperation.
Anabolic steroid use is also under the microscope.
“One positive test in two is for anabolics and these offences happen in a wide field of disciplines,” Bigard added.
“EPO and anabolics can be used together to get both endurance and power. A cheat would be well advised to use both.”
In bobsleigh or speed skating, power is especially important.
Chinese speed skater Shi Xiaoxuan was banned from Pyeongchang after testing positive for clenbuterol, an endurance-boosting substance.
Chris Creveling of the US, a silver medallist in the 5,000m speed skating relay at the Sochi Olympics, has been barred for a positive test for clomifene, as has Canadian bobsleigher Jonathan Francis.
“It’s a substance that helps bring other anabolics to their full potential, a kind of booster,” explained Bigard.
According to WADA data, ice hockey has produced by far the most positive tests while alpine skiing emerges almost as white as snow.
But fans would be forgiven if they no longer believed in winter sports’ Snow White fairytale.
Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong knows a thing or two about sacrifice: he spent two years selling vacuum cleaners to finance his unlikely journey to the Olympics – as a skeleton racer.
After previously failing to qualify as a sprinter and in the bobsleigh, he is set to become only the second athlete from the West African country to compete at a Winter Games in Pyeongchang, six years after his Olympic hopes looked dead and buried.
Frimpong, who moved to the Netherlands when he was just eight, missed the 2012 London Olympics through injury and was a reserve on the Dutch bobsleigh team in Sochi four years ago.
The 31-year-old then switched to the crackpot sport of skeleton to try to qualify for the olympics for his native Ghana. But he admits he was terrified the first time he flung himself down an icy mountain head-first.
“It was scary, very scary,” Frimpong told AFP in an interview after training in Pyeongchang.
“You’re literally like ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to die?’ You can almost see your coffin waiting for you at the finish. When you make it to the bottom you feel a little bit more confident. But it was definitely painful in the beginning.”
Before following in the footsteps of Ghana’s “Snow Leopard” Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, who competed in slalom skiing at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Frimpong struggled to convince sponsors he was serious and few gave him the time of day.
“When I missed the bobsled in 2013, I was looking for a temporary job to pay for my cell phone bill and I saw an ad about selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door,” said Frimpong, breaking into a broad smile.
“In my first month I sold 18 of them in 15 days and in my second I won a gold-digger award for selling 32 vacuums in 18 days. I paid for my season selling vacuum cleaners!”
Frimpong, who turns 32 at the weekend before the start of the Olympic skeleton competition, lived with his grandmother in Ghana as a young child after his mother moved to the Netherlands in search of a better life for her family.
He joined his mother there but lived as an illegal immigrant and his skeleton helmet, which shows a rabbit escaping from a lion’s jaws, tells the story of Frimpong’s difficult road to the Olympics.
“My old sprint coach said you have a lion and a rabbit in a cage, and the rabbit’s trying to escape when the gate opens,” he explained.
“I was the rabbit and the lion was Dutch immigration hunting me down, trying to get me out of the country. All the negative things were basically the lion and I could never escape it.”
But from such troubled beginnings, Frimpong looks poised to become a smash hit in South Korea this month.
“I’ve been dreaming of the Olympics for 15 years,” he said.
“There are hard moments obviously, but I kept going because my grandma told me: ‘Akwasi, what you need for success is already in you!’
“It’s a matter of believing in yourself, having the will to never give up.”
The reaction to his success in football-mad Ghana has been “overwhelming”, said Frimpong.
But his immediate objective is to gain experience for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
“My goal when I started was always 2022,” he said. “Africa has never won a winter medal before and Ghana has never won a gold medal in the olympics. It would be a great honour to do that.”
“But first I want to break down barriers, to show that black people can do this as well,” he added.
“I was always getting eaten by the lion, but I’ve finally become the rabbit my coach always wanted me to be.”
South Korea’s Jang Hye-Ji launched 18 days of competition at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Thursday by sliding the first mixed doubles curling stone in Olympic history down the ice.
While the official opening ceremonies are not until Friday night, the first mixed doubles curling event in the Olympic Games began a day early to open 18 days of competition that will conclude with the February 25 closing cermonies.
Jang took the opportunity to make Olympic history in her opening round-robin match match alongside Lee Ki-Jeong against Finland’s Oona Kauste and Tomi Rantamaeki before about 2,500 spectators at Gangneung Curling Centre.
Other opening round-robin matches sent Canada against Norway, China against reigning world champion Switzerland and the Olympic Athletes from Russia against the United States.
The Russians – the 2016 world champion husband-and-wife team of Aleksandr Krushelnitckii and Anastasia Bryzgalova – are competing under the Olympic flag after Russia was banned from the Games for major doping violations at the 2014 Sochi Games.
The OAR duo launched their medal quest against US siblings Matt and Becca Hamilton, inspiring a solitary “Russ-i-a” yell from the crowd after scoring two points in the second end.
After seven round-robin matches through Sunday, the top four teams will reach Monday’s semi-finals with medal matches set for Tuesday.