Editor’s Note: This book excerpt is used with permission of VeloPress from Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports by Mark Johnson. In Spitting in the Soup, Johnson explores how the deals made behind closed doors keep drugs in sports. Johnson unwinds the doping culture from the early days, when pills meant progress, and uncovers the complex relationships that underlie elite sports culture. Spitting in the Soup offers a bitingly honest, clear-eyed look at why that’s so, and what it will take to kick pills out of the locker room once and for all. Learn more at www.spittinginthesoup.com and www.velopress.com.
On April 20, 1994, three cyclists from the Italian Gewiss-Ballan team made a mockery of the pro peloton with 30 miles remaining in the 127-mile Belgian classic La Flèche Wallonne. Entering the center of Huy, a city of 14th-century churches and cobbled squares straddling a languid loop in the Meuse River, the field jolted onto the precipitous Chemin des Chapelles, also known as the Mur de Huy. As the road headed up, Moreno Argentin, Giorgio Furlan, and Evgeni Berzin flicked their shifters into gears that only they possessed. By the top of the 1.3-kilometer climb, the trio had a 14-second gap on the field. The peloton never saw them again. After a 30-mile final loop through the rolling Ardennes countryside, the Gewiss-Ballan trio started their final climb to the finish atop the Mur de Huy. There was no need for them to send a fleeting prayer for victory toward one of the ascent’s six roadside chapels; Argentin won with Furlan and Berzin taking second and third. The trio’s nearest competitor, 1991 and 1992 road world champion Gianni Bugno, rolled in 1:14 later. Two and a half minutes drained from the clock before 1993 world champion Lance Armstrong finished.
Even before the Gewiss-Ballan threesome crossed the finish line, fans and riders were suspicious. Pull up the race on YouTube and you’ll see why. It is a show of effortless, inhuman domination. When the teammates attack, they float away with a fluid animation a universe apart from the bobbing and heaving field gasping behind. That spring day in Belgium broadcast the awesome, performance-enhancing potential of EPO.
Following the race, a French sportswriter named Jean-Michel Rouet spoke to the Gewiss-Ballan team’s Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari. The physician was rumored to be a keen proponent of the relatively new blood-boosting anemia treatment drug, recombinant human erythropoietin, or EPO, and his riders’ unbelievable victory made Rouet eager to pin down the Italian. Reporting on their encounter in the April 22, 1994, issue of the French sports daily L’Équipe, Rouet raised the widely accepted rumor that EPO had caused a rash of Dutch cyclists to die in their sleep. Referring to events that many accepted but none stopped to challenge, Rouet all but accused Ferrari of trying to kill athletes. “A dozen Dutch riders died a few years ago,” the journalist asserted. When Ferrari demurred, Rouet pressed on. “In any case, it is dangerous!” he said.
Ferrari would have none of it. “EPO is not dangerous,” he retorted. “Its abuse is.” Ferrari then added, “It is also dangerous to drink ten liters of orange juice.”
Ferrari was a protégé of Italian blood-doping pioneer Francesco Conconi—a man whose groundbreaking research into autologous blood boosting helped Francesco Moser shatter the hour record in 1984. For most reading this exchange, Ferrari’s response to Rouet’s interrogation immediately became evidence of the doctor’s cavalier attitude toward anti-doping laws. When growing moralism about drug use in sport was superimposed upon Ferrari’s statement of fact—EPO isn’t dangerous, its abuse is—the Italian’s willingness to challenge hardened anti-doping orthodoxies also became a sign of moral treachery. Sure, orange juice was benign, but just pick up a newspaper or cycling magazine and you’d see—EPO was a killer set loose among the peloton.
Ferrari became a poster boy for the mortal dangers of EPO and its distributors. While the Dutch riders Rouet referred to were never conclusively linked to death by EPO, the fabrication served a larger anti-doping moral agenda and the missionary effort to impose purity on sport. After the IOC expanded its definition of performance-enhancing substances and took a more aggressive approach to doping in response to the 1984 Olympic blood-boosting scandal, the characterization of sports doping as a plague gained speed. As historian Paul Dimeo explains, through the 1980s, “the construction of doping as an evil, a plague, a cancer or a temptation” was kept alive by the myth that sports were inherently good and drugs were a corrupting temptation that had to be beat out of the athletic garden of Eden. By daring to speak the truth about a drug—that under a doctor’s supervision, it is safe—Ferrari fell short of the newly emboldened anti-doping evangelists.2 Pointing out that Ferrari was correct would have been to spit in the soup of anti-doping outrage that was becoming a nurturing broth for journalists and anti-doping administrators alike.
Three years before Lance Armstrong finished La Flèche Wallonne over two minutes down on the Ferrari-charged trio, on May 19, 1991, the New York Times startled readers with news of a killer stalking the roadways and velodromes of Europe. “A genetically engineered drug that was created for people suffering from kidney failure has become the latest substance to be abused by athletes seeking enhanced stamina and performance,” Times journalist Lawrence Fisher reported. “The consequences, in some cases, may be deadly.” Ominously titled “Stamina-Building Drug Linked to Athletes’ Deaths,” the piece connected the death of 18 European pro cyclists over a four-year period to EPO. Although the Times headline gripped readers by their lapels and yanked them into the dirty world of European pro cycling, the story’s claim that the drug was responsible for 18 cyclist deaths was based on speculation. EPO can theoretically cause stroke, hypertension, and myocardial infarction when used by dehydrated athletes, especially when taken without a doctor’s supervision. Evidence also suggests that the hormone may have an anti-inflammatory and tissue-repairing effect that can aid with recovery. What was not provable in 1991, or today, is that the drug killed a rash of cyclists.