Week In Sports: Olympic Drugs Exemptions And National Anthem Protests

Sep 17, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to spend a few more minutes on a story we mentioned earlier about the release of some private medical information about some prominent athletes. It's believed to have been stolen by Russian hackers. The hacker revealed that some of the medicines that athletes have been taking with the approval of anti-doping officials in their respective sports leagues. According to the officials in those leagues, the drugs were allowed because those athletes had legitimate medical needs. But it's also just the latest example of how sports isn't just sports any more - if it ever was. It's deeply connected to politics. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Kevin Blackistone. He's a professor at the University of Maryland. He's also a columnist for The Washington Post, among a number of other jobs. Welcome back, Kevin, thanks for joining us.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: No problem.

MARTIN: So hackers got into the computer systems of the World Anti-Doping Agency, and it revealed that athletes like Simone Biles, for example, had so-called therapeutic use exemptions to take medicines that would otherwise be banned by doping authorities so they can use these substances without being penalized. Though, we have to set aside how this information was obtained.

BLACKISTONE: Right.

MARTIN: But now that it is public, the question that emerges now is whether elite athletes should be allowed to use medicines for something like ADHD, which some people could argue could give you an athletic advantage by improving your focus. What's your take on this?

BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, sports have been medicated for many, many years, and it wasn't really until USADA and WADA - USADA being the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, an arm of WADA - got involved to put together a list of medications that could be approved by athletes depending on their medical conditions and a list of those substances which must be banned because they can be considered enhancements or against the spirit of the sport or just dangerous to the body. And it is a lengthy, lengthy list. Anybody can go to USADA or WADA and view the list for themselves. But you can get exemptions, and it's been going on for quite some time. And I'll tell you one of the more interesting ones that really hasn't been figured out yet by either organization and that's people who train at high altitudes or train in hyperbaric chambers, I believe that they're called, which do the same thing is as EPO, which increases the oxygen that - the cells that carry the oxygen in the blood and give you an advantage. And that's one of those things that they really have not figured out how to handle. So it's a - it's pretty complicated.

MARTIN: Is this changing - is this latest hack, though, is this changing the conversations around this?

BLACKISTONE: You know, I don't think it changes the conversation, but what I do think it changes is how much politics, as you mentioned, are a part of sports now, and this was clearly a retaliatory measure by some Russian nationalists upset that the Russian track and field team had been kicked out of the - kicked out of the Olympics for the state-sponsored drug program. And by the way, they also hacked into the medical records of the whistleblower in Russia, the Russian athlete who really caused all of this to come to the fore.

MARTIN: We only have a couple more minutes and there's so many sports stories this week. It was actually hard to pick just a couple to talk about. But one that I just feel we really need to talk about is this issue around the national anthem protest that was started by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who's been refusing to stand during the anthem. He says it's to protest how black people are treated in this country, particularly involving police violence. Now the protests are spreading.

BLACKISTONE: Yeah.

MARTIN: We've seen a number of other athletes, not just professionals but also down to the high school level...

BLACKISTONE: How about that.

MARTIN: ...Addressing this. This has not been universally popular...

BLACKISTONE: No.

MARTIN: ...As you know. A number of places there have - people in the communities are not pleased about this. I just wanted to get your opinion about this. I do want to mention President Obama said Kaepernick is using his constitutional right to start an important discussion. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, suggested Kaepernick find another country to live in. What's your take on it?

BLACKISTONE: Well, it certainly wasn't popular when the most famous protests involving the national anthem and the flag took place in 1968 in Mexico City, John Carlos and Tommie Smith punching their black-gloved fist into the air as they got their medals for the 200-meter final. And people are still very, very uncomfortable with the method and are not paying enough attention to the message. And if you look at the high schools that where athletes have gotten involved in this, these are athletes who mostly are of color, and they are athletes who represent the very essence of the other end of police brutality and extrajudicial killings of black men in this country. And so I understand how they can be - how they feel so aggrieved to the point where they would take this stand.

MARTIN: That's Kevin Blackistone. He teaches at the University of Maryland. He's also a columnist for The Washington Post. Kevin, lots more to talk about, more to come. Hope you'll come back. Thanks for joining us.

BLACKISTONE: Call me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.