A 25th Anniversary But What Lessons Learned?

The First Major Doping Scandal in Olympic History
The First Major Doping Scandal in Olympic History

This year marked a significant anniversary in sport history, but one likely few celebrated. Twenty-five years ago—September 26, 1988—news broke of the first major doping scandal in the Olympic Games. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who just two days previously had won the 100 meter dash in a world record clip, had tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid stanozolol at the Seoul Olympics. Johnson was neither the first to use prohibited “doping” substances at the Olympics nor the first to get caught. Johnson’s case is notable because it marked the first time a high-profile athlete was unceremoniously stripped of his medal rather than having his results covered up or ignored. Johnson’s case is also useful for framing the history of doping in elite sports and providing some insight into the current problem sport faces.

Pietri crossing the finish line at the 1908 Marathon
Pietri crossing the finish line at the 1908 Marathon

Long before Johnson, professional and Olympic athletes had sought substances to enhance their performance. Turn-of-the-century prizefighters would often draw on alcohol, perceived as a stimulant, while Olympic marathoner’s would use strychnine, a substance common in rat poison, to ward off fatigue. More interestingly, these doping substances were openly used. When Italian marathoner Dorando Pietri was disqualified from winning the 1908 Olympic Marathon, it was not because of his use of brandy mixed with strychnine but because sports officials had helped him after he had collapsed a few yards short of the finish line. One can even find newspaper articles discussing athletes’ doping much like today’ pundits discuss pre-game strategy.

So how did sport go from a tacit tolerance of doping to ejecting the fastest human in the world?

The driving forces behind anti-doping efforts have become largely forgotten. Surprising to some, the first anti-doping bans actually emerged from horse racing in the late 1890s. Horse racing began cracking down on drugs administered to horses in large part because owners and trainers were doping horses in order to profit by gambling. By making a horse race faster or slower, it became easier to fix races and profit from bets placed on the odds. We still even use colloquialisms from this period; those in the know about the fix would have the “inside dope” about which horse to bet on.

Horse racing realized fixed races hurt business and banned these crooked practices.

IOC President Avery Brundage authored the first anti-doping statement in IOC history
IOC President Avery Brundage authored the first anti-doping statement in IOC history

Similarly, officials in human sport soon found their tacit tolerance of doped athletes hurt their public image. The early stimulants athletes used included cocaine, strychnine, coffee, tobacco, and alcoholic drinks of the athlete’s choice. Most of these substances really did not help the athlete. Indeed, there is a famous story of a marathon runner John Lundquist who passed out while leading the Chicago marathon after reportedly drinking too many shots of whiskey. However, the International Olympic Committee soon concluded that images of athletes smoking, drinking and taking cocaine hurt its image of wholesome and healthy competition. This “branding issue” led to a series of reforms in the 1920s and 1930s that outwardly banned athletes from doping, though failed to include methods for enforcement.

Without real reforms, the practices persisted until a handful of high-profile deaths drew public attention to the risks of doping. Though neither the death of Danish cyclist Knud Jensen 1960 nor British cyclist Tommy Simpson in 1967 were directly caused by drug use, the athletes’ connections with doping spurred reforms. This continued until 1988, when finally the IOC stripped gold from Johnson for doping. However, in the quarter century since, the sport’s world has witnessed the ebb and flow of doping scandals with the seeming regularity of the tides without much progress. Recent revelations from baseball (Ryan Braun), track and field (Asafa Powell, and cycling (Lance Armstrong, among many) indicate the issue is far from solved.

A doped Tom Simpson climbs moments before his demise
A doped Tom Simpson climbs moments before his demise

But solving the issue may mean sacrifices that most are unwilling to accept.

Currently, WADA officials and doping experts from around the world are meeting to address the ongoing doping issue. Will they consider history’s lessons? History points out that athletes and officials lacked the will to really eradicate doping from sport. They may toe the company line and condemn doping but as a group they have yet to put their full effort into tackling the issue. More worrisome, researchers have pointed out that the culture of “faster, higher, stronger” that rewards a single-minded pursuit of performance—and also creates an entertaining and commercially profitable product—breeds a community that naturally gravitates towards drug taking for improved performance. In that sense, drug taking is only the outward symptom of a deeper issue within sport culture.

What solutions do we have? Real headway involves wholesale changes to the culture of sport. What won’t work are harsher punishments, lifetime bans, or more drug testing. These will not reach the root of the problem. The issue is a persistent culture views doping as a public relations problem but one quite willing to enjoy pharmaceutically-enhanced performance. Real and lasting changes require sacrificing aspects of sport that we value like extreme devotion, risk taking, and ever-greater performances. It will also mean shorter seasons, fewer records, longer recoveries from injuries, and more ordinary performances. However, it is unclear if anyone is willing to go beyond lip service and make those tradeoffs. If not, expect the status quo to remain for another twenty-five years.

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