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

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After Jørgensen mentioned drugs, the press gathered in Rome lost interest in reporting the obvious and medically documented cause of Jensen’s death—dehydration, heatstroke, a head injury, and emergency services that raised his core temperature at exactly the time when it needed to be lowered. Even though Jensen’s autopsy did not mention the presence of drugs in his blood, a myth took hold that Jensen had amphetamines in his system. Drugs—not the rise in core temperature and subsequent catastrophic organ failure—became the popularly reported killer. Drugs gave Jensen’s death a darkly dramatic angle that made it irresistible to the press. The Olympic scribes tailored their reports of this tragic turn of Olympic events for ominous effect.

In response to Jensen’s death and the subsequent media eruption, in 1962 the IOC created a medical commission to examine doping in Olympic sports. In 1967, it assigned Prince Alexandre de Mérode, a Belgian with no medical experience, to lead the drug study group. The commission oversaw the first Olympic drug tests. They were rolled out at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France, and that year’s Sum­mer Games in Mexico City, where Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall became the first Olympic competitor to be suspended for doping. For decades, anti-doping sentiments had remained a quiet sub­set of the IOC’s obsession with amateurism; it was not until Jensen’s death that the IOC made its first timid exhortations against doping, early protests that eventually inflated the 1946 anti-doping statement into a full-blown anti-doping industry with its own policies, procedures, and global bureaucracies, along with a tractable fleet of reporters channeling fresh winds of anti-doping moral outrage.

Short on facts but packed with speculative projections, media reports on Jensen’s death became so ingrained in the public consciousness that they turned up in U.S. congressional testimony, used wrongly as evidence of the lethal effect of performance-enhancing drugs. During hearings held in 1973 on drug abuse in America, University of Oklahoma athletics phy­sician Donald Cooper referred to Jensen’s death as evidence that mixing doping and sports can kill. Jensen’s death entered the congressional record when Senator Birch Bayh asked Cooper for cases in which amphetamines were “linked with serious injury or fatalities.” Cooper responded, “There are reports in the literature; yes, in fact I think you will find in the 1960 Olympics there was a cyclist, a Belgian cyclist, where it happened.”14 Illustrating the secondhand nature of his testimony, Cooper got Jensen’s nationality wrong. His citation of a death that had little, if anything, to do with drugs and much to do with bad trauma care illustrates the degree to which the Danish cyclist’s demise took on a sinister life of its own. What was truly ominous—the lack of proper emergency care that could have saved Jensen’s life—was not the story American lawmakers heard. Instead, it was the mangled parroting of a media fabrication—granted credibility by dint of the Oklahoma physician’s medical training and athletic authority—that resonated with politicians, journalists, and the public. Jensen’s death became one of the earliest examples in the Ameri­can historical record of the dangers of doping in sport, even though it should have been evidence of the danger of practicing endurance sports in extreme heat without properly trained medical technicians on hand.

As Paul Dimeo put it in A History of Drug Use in Sport, 1876–1976, Jensen’s reputation continued “to be sullied by those eager to use his body as proof of the health risks of doping” long after his death.15 In his painstakingly researched account of Jensen’s death and its manipula­tion, Verner Møller points out that because Jensen’s demise “became a symbol of unethical behavior,” journalists and doping researchers alike were more interested in the mythology that served their growing prohi­bitionary impulses than in locating facts.16 The drug fabrication served political, economic, and social interests that heatstroke did not.

A rational assessment of Jensen’s death would lead one to believe that the incident should have encouraged the IOC authorities to pass rules demanding better medical care and better monitoring of life-endangering weather conditions during competition. Instead, Jensen’s death by heatstroke became the foundational event for today’s anti-doping organizations. Indeed, as late as 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s website referred to an autopsy that revealed “traces of amphet­amines” in Jensen’s blood, even though no evidence exists for this claim, since the actual final autopsy report was never seen. Møller speculates that the report may stay under lock and key to this day because revealing it might be embarrassing to Italian medical authorities.

In keeping with the moral import of Coubertin’s original quasi-theological project, Jensen’s death helped give doping a menacing social weight greater than mere athlete health. The pan-European CoE bureaucracy was one of the first to embrace the notion that sports doping represented a social evil that, if left unchecked, would rend the fabric of society. With Jensen’s death hanging in the public consciousness, in 1963, the CoE held its early anti-doping conferences in Strasbourg and Madrid. A 1964 report on the meetings described medical experts from 14 European countries (Russia and East Germany were noticeably absent) joining to discuss “the gravity of the problem and the value attached to combatting this menace by means of a joint European approach.”17 Meeting resolutions described doping as “a social evil having ramifica­tions far beyond the realm of sport.” Seeing which way the social and bureaucratic winds were blowing, the IOC agreed at its annual congress in 1964 to formally condemn drug use and instruct its national Olympic organizing bodies to let their athletes know they might be tested.

Continue to page 5 for more from Spitting in the Soup »
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