On 27 July 2012 the 30th edition of the Summer Olympics of the modern era would be officially opened with tremendous glitz, glamour, lofty speeches and fireworks. The entire world would watch and listen. Many would hanker back to the lofty ideals of the founders of the international Olympic Movement and the lofty ideals that have been intended to be attendant to them.
For just over two weeks athletes would then treat the world to performances as they vie for victory in the different sporting events.
Many enjoy the Olympics as the world’s greatest sporting spectacle yet in the midst of it all there lurks the dark spectre that the performances that seem to stretch the levels of human sporting achievement may well have been rendered possible only by the systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs – a scourge that dates back to antiquity and the Ancient Olympics themselves.
In a rather interesting yet disturbing article penned in 1998, the coach of several top athletes including Ben Johnson, disgraced winner of the 100m at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Charlie Francis, stated, It’s now a matter of record that the systematic use of performance enhancing drugs in sport for more than 50 years has punted performance standards clear out of sight, so far out of sight that no human can attain them without chemical assistance.
Francis worked with Ben Johnson for several years and has seen it all in respect of the use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes. He seems to suggest that what we are seeing today is really an extension of the past and that things are unlikely to change any time soon despite the best efforts of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA).
Origins of drug use in sport
Francis observed, …Whenever winning has mattered, athletes have sought an edge over their rivals, making the marriage between drugs and competition as old as sport itself. Attempts to boost Testosterone were already being recorded by 776 BC, when Olympic athletes ingested sheep’s testicles — a prime source of Testosterone. Athletes of antiquity used cola plants, hashish, cactus-based stimulants, Amanita muscaria (a fungus), and an assortment of other rudimentary ergogenics with varying degrees of success.
Interestingly this information is well known in sporting circles although many seem anxious to portray a level of ignorance beyond belief.
Francis further noted, …The first documented modern case of doping surfaced in 1865 with Dutch swimmers using stimulants. By the late 19th century, European cyclists were drugging themselves with a variety of “miracle” products, from caffeine and ether-coated sugar cubes to Vin Mariani, a compound of wine laced with cocaine, to allay the pain and exhaustion endemic to their sport.
By the time of the first modern Olympics in 1896, a broad array of performance aids were in currency, from codeine to strychnine (which is a powerful stimulant in sub-lethal doses.) In the 1904 Olympics, American marathon winner Thomas Hicks had to be revived by four physicians after ingesting brandy laced with cocaine and strychnine. He still got his gold medal, of course.
It is the desire to win and bask in the glory of the adulation showered on the successful athlete that seems to have been the primary motivating factor in antiquity just as much as is the case today. Add to this the prospect of making millions of dollars and the motivation to use performance-enhancing drugs is complete.
According to Francis… By 1932, sprinters were experimenting with nitroglycerine in an effort to dilate their coronary arteries and later began experimenting with Benzidrine. But the real modern doping era started with the introduction of injectable Testosterone in 1935. Developed by Nazi doctors to promote aggression in their troops, Testosterone found its way onto the athletic field with Germany’s Olympic team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Olympic winners had used oral Testosterone preparations before — notably Paavo Nurmi with a product called Rejuvin during the 1920’s
Francis makes the point that the Russians learned the craft from the German scientists whom they had captured during the war and put them to work applying their trade to Russian athletes. This, he claims, was responsible for the sudden rise in the performances of Russian athletes as their country entered the international Olympic fraternity.
The Americans got into the act not long afterwards. Francis claims… In 1955, John Ziegler, the physician for the US weightlifting team, developed a modified synthetic Testosterone molecule with enhanced tissue building properties. This was the first manmade anabolic steroid. Its chemical name was methandrostenolone; its trade name was Dianabol. Most know it these days as D-bol.
Developed by Ciba Pharmaceuticals, Dianabol soon became widely available and indispensable to weightlifters, football players, and track and field athletes. It spurred protein synthesis and helped muscles to regenerate quickly from the stress of training. And for sprint and power athletes, the drug excited the muscle motor neurons, resulting in more powerful muscle contractions, which is the foundation for higher speed and improved reaction times.
Francis is no saint nor does he appear to be a hypocrite. He claimes… Interestingly, 1968 was the first time an official complaint about steroids was being heard. This complaint wasn’t made by sports authorities, but by the World Health Organization. Apparently steroids were being dumped in some third world countries with a kickback volume incentive for doctors. The doctors became quite creative in finding reasons to prescribe steroids, citing everything from malnutrition to menstrual cramps. Coincidentally, the two main countries cited in the report were Kenya and Jamaica, countries that burst into prominence at the 1968 Olympics.
Since the late 1960s the global sporting community has been forced to take note of the significant performances in the different sports. Weightlifters raised the bar on performances at almost every competition. Track and field athletes pushed the clock to the extreme.
Amazingly the number of athletes caught in competition was miniscule.
Many were shocked when, as the end of the last millennium approached, then president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, called for consideration to be given to the closing of the books on world records in all sports at the end of the millennium and start afresh in the new millennium.
To this day many wonder whether Samaranch was making a point about the legitimacy of the then existing world records. Perhaps he knew something that the rest of us did not.
The International Olympic Committee saw the importance of having the international sporting community operating on the same page in the fight against drugs in sport and
… convened the First World Conference on Doping in Sport in Lausanne in February 1999. According to the information from WADA, …following the proposal of the Conference, the World AntiDoping Agency (WADA) was established on November 10, 1999.
WADA itself has chronicled its understanding of the history of doping in sport and the fight against doping and it reads remarkably close to the work of Charlie Francis referred to above.
WADA however notes, …In 1928 the IAAF (athletics) became the first International Sport Federation (IF) to ban doping (use of stimulating substances). Many other IFs followed suit, but restrictions remained ineffective as no tests were performed. Meanwhile the problem was made worse by synthetic hormones, invented in the 1930s and in growing use for doping purposes since the 1950s. The death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen during competition at the Olympic Games in Rome 1960 (the autopsy revealed traces of amphetamine) increased the pressure for sports authorities to introduce drug testing.
In 1966 UCI (cycling) and FIFA (football) were among the first IFs to introduce doping tests in their respective World Championships. In the next year the International Olympic Committee (IOC) instituted its Medical Commission and set up its first list of prohibited substances. Drug tests were first introduced at the Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble and at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. In the year before, the urgency of antidoping work had been highlighted by another tragic death, that of cyclist Tom Simpson during the Tour de France.
Since being established WADA has been expending millions of dollars in research aimed at winning the war against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport.
But even as WADA makes significant breakthroughs in the detection of performance-enhancing drugs being used by athletes and coaches there is a cadre of researchers bent on discovering new substances and methods to advance what they perceive to be their ‘cause’ – pushing humans to higher performance heights in sport.
Francis suggests that athletes faced a dilemma: break the rules or lose.
As the work of the drug testers advance the users and their researchers also shift. Francis notes, The proliferation of drugs continued as each advance in drug testing met with evermore sophisticated protocols. Testosterone ratio tests were met with the administration of Epitestosterone along with Testosterone to maintain an acceptable ratio. Epitestosterone limits were met with the use of HCG to restore natural T/E ratios. The inclusion of HCG on the banned list led to its replacement by Clomid.
Frequent drug testing led to the use of the blocking agent Probenecid. The banning of Probenecid led first to the use of another masking agent called Defend, and then to the use of designer anabolic steroids, the state of the art today. These designer drugs have their chemical structures modified in such a way as to make them unidentifiable to the drug testers while maintaining their performance enhancing qualities.
For several years Lance Armstrong was held aloft as the greatest road cyclist of all time. He has however recently had formal charges filed against him by the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA), the seven-time winner of the prestigious yet gruelling Tour de France, for use of performance-enhancing drugs.
According to AP sports writer, Jim Vertuno, Also charged are team doctors Pedro Celaya Lezama and Luis Garcia del Moral; team trainer Pepe Marti, and consulting doctor Michele Ferrari. Because they are so closely linked, USADA rolled all of the charges into a single case.
The letter from USADA claims that Armstrong and the others “(have) been part of a doping conspiracy involving team officials, employees, doctors and elite cyclists. He is accused of using, possessing and trafficking banned substances including the blood-booster EPO, blood transfusions and steroids. The charges date back to 1998, after he had been declared cancer free but before his first Tour de France victory the following summer.
2012 is an Olympic year and once more efforts would be made to break existing world records.
The important question being asked by some is whether the performances are legitimate – free from the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs.
There was a time when cynics suggested that there be two Olympics – one for those drug cheats and another for those who believe in the principle of fair play.
What is clear to all followers of sport is the ease with which it is possible to determine in one’s own mind just who is really involved in the use of performance-enhancing drugs when one sits at a competition. The burden of proof is the challenge.