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

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The 1946 Olympic charter’s single condemnation of doping was sub­merged among nine other entries detailing how athletes should not be paid, housed, fed, and otherwise financially supported in a way that would lead them into the moral perdition of professionalism. The 1946 charter included zero guidance on which chemical substances were unacceptable, how to go about identifying dopers, the consequences of ignoring the recommendation, or how enforcement would be organized and funded. The rule was therefore not so much a law equipped with implementation mechanisms as a signpost warning Olympic athletes to not go down the chemical road to professionalism. The IOC’s commit­ment to building a wall between amateurs and pros was so fierce that matters of drug use kept their position in the charter as a subset of ama­teur protection rules all the way until 1975. That was the year the first IOC Medical Commission was created, and with it, drug use moved from the protection-focused general charter to the IOC medical code.

So what finally pushed the IOC to look at doping as an issue separate from protecting amateurism? One reason was that as pro sports grew in popularity, it became difficult to find amateur athletes who did not emu­late their professional heroes’ sports medicine and racing techniques. At some point, the IOC could not continue to pretend that its amateurs were not embracing professional doping habits. A 1964 report commissioned by the Council of Europe (CoE) cited an Italian survey of amateur cyclists conducted during the 1962 and 1963 race seasons. The organization reported that at the 1962 Italian amateur road championships, 14 of the top 30 finishers tested positive for drugs—46.6 percent positive among a group of non-pro riders who had been told in advance of the race that they would take part in a drug survey. Prior to that, in 1955, the Federa­zione Medico Sportiva Italiana tested the urine of 25 cyclists during an Italian stage race, and 20 percent were positive for amphetamines.9

But while the pervasiveness of doping in amateur sports was becoming too obvious for the IOC to ignore, it was a death at the 1960 Rome Olympics that forced the organization to pay sharper attention to the anti-doping rule that had been sitting quietly ignored on its books since 1938.

Pills

The 100-kilometer cycling team time trial was held on Friday, August 26, 1960, a day that saw thermometers passing the 100-degree mark along Rome’s Viale dell’Oceano Pacifico. Rolling out between the Portuguese and Moroccan squads, the four-man Danish team was 33rd to start. At 9:33 a.m., the Roman sun was already punishing the soften­ing blacktop. Falling quickly into a tempo, the Danish squad finished the first of three 32.2-kilometer laps with the fourth-best time of the day.

Then things went wrong. After passing the first time check in front of the Rome velodrome, Dane Jørgen Jørgensen dropped out; the heat was too much. Then one of the remaining three riders, Knud Enemark Jensen, began complaining of dizziness. His teammates, Vagn Bangsborg and Niels Baunsøe, rode next to the 23-year-old from Ärhus. A Dan­ish news photographer’s photo shows Bangsborg and Baunsøe riding on either side of Jensen with their hands pulling him forward by the back of his jersey. With race number 127 crinkling on Jensen’s hip, the two teammates suspended the collapsing Jensen like a bicycle marionette. Their efforts were for naught. Jensen had succumbed to heatstroke. A photo in Denmark’s Ekstra Bladet newspaper caught Jensen spilling from his bike and landing on his head.

An ambulance rushed Jensen to a medical tent. Lacking air condition­ing, the dark canvas military tent was like a sauna. Interior temperatures reached an estimated 120 to 130˚F. Today we know that proper treat­ment for the heat-stricken Jensen would have been to submerge him in an ice bath to lower his core body temperature. Instead, he got the oppo­site. Jensen broiled in the canvas oven for two hours. Then he died.10

Though Italian authorities will not release it to this day, the official autopsy reportedly attributed the first death in modern Olympic history to heatstroke, which was probably not helped by Jensen’s head injury and the fact that he was severely dehydrated on a day that saw 31 other riders suffer from the same debilitating condition. The Danish riders did not carry water on their bikes; the coaches thought bottles would be too heavy. Of course, racing 62 miles in 100-degree temperatures without fluids is a recipe for physical collapse.11

From a physiological perspective, placing Jensen in an oven rather than an ice bath was tantamount to putting him in a coffin and nailing the lid shut when he still had a chance of survival. Properly treated heatstroke victims can be back on their feet within an hour of collapse. But left untreated, heatstroke leads to a catastrophic chain of events that includes organ failure, cardiac arrest, and cardiac stroke as the body shuts down in an effort to cope with severe physiological imbalances. As one sports medicine textbook explains, “Delay in initiating cooling makes heatstroke a potentially fatal condition.”12

Had the press reports of the day stuck to the autopsy, Jensen’s death by heat probably would have remained a somber Olympic footnote. However, the Dane’s demise took on sinister overtones when the team trainer, Oluf Jørgensen, told Jensen’s attending doctors that he had given his riders a vascular dilation drug called Roniacol before the race. Jør­gensen had no reason to hide this fact. Although anti-doping rules were technically on the books, it was common knowledge that athletes took drugs to compete, that no one was tested, and that as long as an athlete was not openly flaunting race earnings at the Olympics, he had little to worry about concerning drug use in the Games. The chairman of the Dutch cycling federation, Piet van Dijk, reportedly said athletes were using “cartloads” of dope that year in Rome—“in royal quantities.”13

Continue to page 4 for more from Spitting in the Soup »
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