The Hot Roman Day When Doping Became Bad, a chapter from Spitting in the Soup

Exploring how the deals made behind closed doors keep drugs in sports

Race Coverage Tour de France


Thirteen years after the IAAF published its first stricture against drugs as a symptom of professionalism, the problem of how to be competi­tive on international sporting fields without pro-level support came to a head at the 1936 Berlin Games. After Hitler’s Olympic extravaganza, the IOC fielded complaints that German teams were amateurs in name only. While they technically were not paid to train and compete, they had all the support of professional athletes, but without the obligations that came with holding an outside job. The neologism “shamateurism” came to describe a system in which government or private support allows an athlete to train full time, without having to hold a job to pay the rent and grocery bills. Critics claimed the Nazi athletes were sham amateurs.

Responding to the complaints, IOC president Henri de Baillet-Latour, a wealthy Belgian horse racing aficionado and past president of the Brussels Jockey Club, wrote an essay expressing the opinion that doping was contrary to amateurism. “Amateur sport is meant to improve the soul and the body,” the IOC boss wrote. “No stone must be left unturned as long as the use of doping has not been stamped out. Doping ruins the health and very likely implies an early death.” According to Gleaves and Llewellyn, this 1937 opinion is the first-ever IOC proclamation regard­ing drugs in Olympic sports. Like the 1928 IAAF note, the first-recorded IOC comment on drugs in sports was not so much a declaration against doping as against the creeping inroads of professionalism and a threat to social stratifications. It is also likely that Baillet-Latour’s background in horse racing, where doping had long been a problem, inspired his special interest in human performance-enhancing drugs, since drug tak­ing could threaten the Olympics’ identity as a place where sports were practiced for the sake of goodwill among men, not financial gain.5


In advance of the IOC’s 1938 annual meeting in Cairo, Egypt, the organization commissioned several reports on the state of doping in sports. The Belgian Medical Society for Physical Education and Sport wrote one of these papers. Titled “Rapport sur le doping” (Doping report), it matter-of-factly pointed out what everyone knew but saw little reason to condemn: “In professional sports, in cycling above all, doping is practiced on a grand scale.” The report argued that in Olympic sports, doping should be condemned because “it creates a mentality contradic­tory to the true spirit of sports.”6 That true spirit, of course, was the class-order-preserving ethos venerated by grandees calling the shots at the British-dominated IAAF. As Coubertin reflected in 1925, “the funda­mental condition” of the British sports club is one of social exclusion; “members are gentlemen of the same station.”7

The reports pointed to a level of doping that most certainly threat­ened to infect gentlemen with the workingman’s chemicals. After reviewing these reports and acknowledging that drugs in pro sports were as common as water, on March 17, 1938, the IOC adopted its first formal statement against drugs in Olympic sports. However, in 1938, protecting sporting amateurism was beginning to seem like a small and self-indulgent problem relative to the unhinging taking place as the world’s nations girded for war. With London, Dresden, and Tokyo burn­ing, the IOC’s official statement on doping gathered dust. It was not until after the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945 that the IOC got back to business and published a new official Olympic charter in 1946. But even then, the IOC’s updated delineation of its official functions and obligations treated doping as a minor subset of the organization’s crown­ing challenge—maintaining the sanctity of amateurism.

Item six in an Olympic charter section titled “Resolutions Regarding the Amateur Status” proclaimed: “The use of drugs or artificial stimu­lants of any kind must be condemned most strongly, and everyone who accepts or offers dope, no matter in what form, should not be allowed to participate in amateur meetings or in the Olympic Games.”8 And that was all the IOC needed to say about doping, because the meaning was clear to everyone affiliated with the Games: If you use drugs or supply drugs to amateurs, you have crossed the threshold to professionalism and are therefore no longer welcome in the Olympic family. After all, as the 1938 Cairo report acknowledged, in vocational sports like cycling, doping was “practiced on a grand scale.” The IOC’s raison d’être was to tack constantly away from professionalism, not pass judgment on what professional athletes did.

Continue to page 3 for more from Spitting in the Soup »
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