In between hacking the DNC and Colin Powell, Russia decided to snoop through the World Anti-Doping Agency’s emails to dig up some dirt on U.S. athletes (the organization had recently busted Russia’s doping program). The hackers soon uncovered a big find – America’s sweetheart, gymnast Simone Biles, had a medical exemption to use a banned substance called methylphenidate.
While methylphenidate sounds like something Walter White would cook up, most people know it as a treatment for ADHD commonly marketed as Ritalin. Basically, Simone Biles was taking the same pills teachers that force-feed annoying kids when they’re sick of dealing with them.
The media was quick to defend Simone Biles, saying she shouldn’t suffer stigma because of her ADHD and even crying racism. But it’s important to remember that Ritalin is a real drug with real effects – specifically it yields modest yet unambiguous improvements in working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control. Ritalin increases performance on difficult tasks (like training for the Olympics) and boring tasks (like watching the Olympics).
While Biles may very well suffer from ADHD, America is still faced with three possibilities: (i) even with the Ritalin, Biles has below average mental concentration due to her ADHD, (ii) the Ritalin exactly balances out her ADHD, or (iii) the Ritalin more than counteracts the ADHD and gives her an advantage. Number one seems unlikely since Biles not only won gold, she won by the largest margin since 1980. It also seems unlikely that out of all the possible values, the medicine and disorder balance out exactly. It’d be like spinning the big wheel on the Price is Right and landing on a dollar 200 times in a row. Given that Biles is being heralded as the greatest gymnast ever, it’d be difficult not to not credit some of that success to her Ritalin use.