The ‘World Champion of Doping,’ Rio Record-Breaking, and More

7:49 minutes

Nearly a third of Russia’s summer Olympic hopefuls were barred from competing this year—the fallout from a state-sanctioned doping scandal. But it’s not the first time a country has organized widespread doping, with or without its Olympians knowing about it. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight, talks about that and other Olympic science stories, including why Rio runners probably won’t break any marathon records.

Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Nearly a third of Russia’s summer Olympic hopefuls– that’s 118 of them– were barred from the games this year, the fallout from a state-sanctioned doping scandal. But it’s not the first time a country has organized widespread doping with or without its Olympians knowing about it. Perhaps, you’ll recall the world champions of doping in years past, the East Germans, who sanctioned doping for decades.

Maggie Koerth-Baker, a senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight, is here with that history and other Olympic science news this week. Welcome back, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s a story, so to speak– history of doping in the Olympics.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. So VICE Sports has this really amazing collection of stories on doping in sports out this week, including a piece by Brian Blickenstaff on the story of Gerd Bonk, an East German weightlifter who has possibly the best weightlifter name ever, and who is also credited as the guy who ingested the highest quantity of anabolic steroids in history.



IRA FLATOW: So that’s its own little Olympic record.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It is, yeah. And in one 12-month period, between 1978 and 1979, Gerd Bonk consumed 12,775 milligrams of steroids, which Der Spiegel later equated to the amount of steroids that an entire stable full of calves would have been fed.



IRA FLATOW: He must have been a big guy.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. Well, and also, his kidneys were in failure by 1984. But his story is part of this really interesting back story that I just didn’t know about. I mean, like–

IRA FLATOW: Well, tell us.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: I grew up knowing that the East Germans doped. But I didn’t really realize that it was this coordinated state plan. Like, it actually had a name, State Plan 14.25. And it involved the organized doping of children at state-sponsored sport schools, often without their knowledge or consent.

There’s a story that Blickenstaff tells about an ice skater, who years later after the stuff became public knowledge, reporters contacted her and said, do you want to comment on the steroids that you took when you were skating. And she said, what? What steroids?


MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: She had no idea.

IRA FLATOW: She thought it was vitamins or something that they were giving her?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. And that seems to have been at least somewhat common within that system. And it was also interesting because of its role in human research. So this East German program became the research base for clandestine studies of how steroids contribute to increased performance.

And later, after it became not secret and after the Berlin Wall fell and all of these documents came out, those same people have ended up being sort of the source for studies of negative consequences of steroid use over time. We now know that 55% of the women who were doped in that program ended up with gynecological illnesses.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So this is– they were sort of the human guinea pigs for what steroids did?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, they really were. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So this is still going on today. I noticed in the swim pool in one of the recent races that we had US gold medalist, Lilly King was wagging her fingers at the Russians– the Russian swimmer, wasn’t she?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right. Well, yeah. And it seems like the Russians have had their own systematic state-sponsored doping scandal happening right now. So it’s not something that’s just relegated to the history books. But the scale and coordination of the East German program seems to have been really unique.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Now, your second story is about why we might not want to cross our fingers for any new world records in the marathon this weekend. What’s with that?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, so at FiveThirtyEight, my colleague Christie Aschwanden has a sports science column that looks at why it’s difficult to break records in the marathon and why summer Olympics are almost the least likely place for that to happen. And it turns out that a big part of it is the weather.

So the races– when people have gone back and done studies to see what kind of conditions were prevailing at the races, where people have broken marathon records, well, they found that low temperature is one of the big factors– that the average temperature for a record-breaking marathon is 43.2 degrees Fahrenheit. And this Sunday, when the women race in Rio, it’s supposed to be 80 with 70% humidity.

IRA FLATOW: Just twice the number.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Just twice that number, yeah. So you know, it sort of starts to make sense why it might be difficult to run at the same pace–

IRA FLATOW: Well, maybe–

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: –in that kind of situation.

IRA FLATOW: –it seems to imply that you’re in the wrong Olympics, right? Maybe you move them to the Winter Olympics, where it might be cool like that. With global warming, they’re having trouble with snow. That might be the right time to run them.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Maybe it’s time to change that. We’ll write to the Olympic committee.

IRA FLATOW: How much time can marathoners really shave off from record times? There must be a limit to human ability, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: You know, there is. And over at Buzzfeed, Peter Aldhous has a story about track and field more generally. And a couple of studies that he’s citing there are kind of suggesting that we might be coming up against the limits of human physics in a lot of the track and field events. So like, men’s javelin, the record was set in 1996, and nobody’s come close sense. And one of the studies that Aldhous talks about was really suggesting that men’s running events were within 3% of the limits of human biology now.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Let’s talk about the last story, and it’s about the technology replacing the calls of touche in fencing. I was watching that the other day. It’s fascinating with all the electronic swords and touching and things.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. So you can call this electrified fencers.

IRA FLATOW: Ooh, I like it. I like it.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Ooh, yeah, there we go. I was hoping that hit. So this is a story from Atlas Obscura by Erik Shilling. And it is about how fencing is scored, which honestly, I had never really thought much about. And it turns out that, initially fencing was really relied on the honesty of the fencers.

But back in 1896, somebody suggested a system where the fencers would wear a suit that incorporated some kind of conductive metal. And then they’d use a sword that had an electric charge in it. And when the sword met the suit, you’d complete an electric circuit and a bell would ring. And that is the basis for today’s scoring system for fencing.

You know, the classic foil fencing that you really think about when you think about fencing didn’t adopt that system until the 1960s, because they kind of had to wait for the technology to weave bits of metallic lame into the specific parts of the suit where you get points for hitting. But it’s what they use today. And so every time you watch fencers, you’re watching people in these really interesting, sort of analog electric suits–

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and it’s really cool.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: –walking around, swinging swords at each other.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s lot of fun. You see them flexing it and testing it out. They test it out on each other before they start the fencing.


IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Maggie. Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight based out in Minneapolis.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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