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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Jensen’s death and these early meetings of European bureaucracies marked a change in the paradigm of drugs as substances that helped realize the optimistic vision of science at the service of human potential. Instead, doping was being redefined as an evil. Dimeo writes that these early 1960s events “set in place the modernization of anti-doping; a sys­tem that rigidly enforced moral values through scientific testing, legal restrictions, and bureaucratic procedures.”18

Jensen’s death created pressure on sports federations in places like Belgium, Holland, and Spain to take a harder look at the drug use that had always been present in bike racing, a sport that had long had an important role in those countries. The federations looked to the CoE to bring together scientific and legal experts to help them figure out how to manage a practice that after decades of being accepted as a pro trade tool was now being characterized as a threat to national moral hygiene.

In cycling, the 1964 CoE report concluded that doping had “already begun to undermine the whole structure of the sport.” And since sports were understood to be both a mirror of life and preparation for it, “If doping is allowed to grow unchecked, the time will come when all the benefits accruing to the individual and to the community from the practice of sport will be lost.”19 The CoE did not provide evidence why the doping that had been an accepted part of cycling since the 1870s had suddenly become morally corrosive. Indeed, only 21 years earlier, American College of Sports Medicine founder Peter Karpovich had argued that “ergogenic aids” that improve performance without harm “can hardly be called unethical.” After Jensen’s death, such an opinion was out of joint with the changing spirit of the times.20 Arguing against the position that doping is evil would soon be tantamount to defending a murder or rape; all were indefensible, a priori sins.

The CoE report dictated who held the bureaucratic capacity and paternalistic weight to build an anti-doping infrastructure. “The Euro­pean community is particularly well endowed with the specialized technological, judicial, and medical savoir-faire to abolish the practice of doping and thus protect its own peoples and give a lead to the world,” it concluded. The European sports doctors and administrators that the CoE had brought together in Strasbourg and Madrid were charged with an obligation to protect young athletes from doping pressures outside their control.

Historians like Dimeo and Møller have shown that just as athletes dared not spit in the doping soup that fed them, anti-doping authori­ties were reluctant to admit evidence that would reveal weaknesses in the nurturing fable of pure sports. By the mid-1970s, attitudes toward doping, which first celebrated the union of man and technology, and then began to worry about the potential health risks of overtaxing the human machine with stimulants, fell into two opposing camps. Dimeo describes them as “morality-driven pedagogues and scientists” on one side and athletes, drug suppliers, and innovative pharmacologists on the other.21 The good-versus-evil frame of reference being constructed around doping was woven into the tone of the CoE report’s language. “Doping is a dangerous form of moral deception,” the conference attend­ees concluded. Because the consequences go beyond sports, “apathy on the part of those morally responsible is a crime against humanity.”22

The CoE’s approach to doping in the early 1960s set the stage for the doping battles that continue today. Rather than defining and managing drugs in sports as a health risk alongside more prevalent dangers like heatstroke, heart attacks, and head injuries, the CoE conferences helped turn a previously unremarkable practice into a moral panic that played on broader social worries. As we’ll see, those anxieties had to do with the larger youth and social revolutions roiling Europe and the United States in the 1960s. The solutions that came out of those first conferences in Strasbourg and Madrid helped build the foundation for heavily bureau­cratic and self-protecting anti-doping institutions that were unique to Europe, and that did not take root in the pharmaceutically laissez-faire United States until the creation of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in 2000.

Anti-doping policy and implementation became the domain of scien­tists and administrators, people who looked for solutions in rationalist, bureaucratic ways; in their view, more testing, more research, and better science would solve doping in sports. Yet these solutions were difficult to apply to a tradition with causes rooted in a century of social and eco­nomic history, not biological pathologies that could be eliminated if only science could find the right antidote. As Dimeo puts it, under the gaze of the growing pack of government-supported anti-doping organizations in Europe, “Athletes were either clean or they were guilty, they were good or evil, there was no middle ground and no scope for ethical dilemmas.”23

According to Møller’s research, Jensen’s rumor-driven death-by-amphetamine story ossified into accepted fact because journalists and historians handed the story from one to the other without bothering to check primary sources. It was a house of cards that hardened into an unassailable edifice of “truth.” One example of this rewriting of history to forward a preferred bureaucratic agenda can be found in the 2002 cautionary book on sports doping, Dying to Win. A Council of Europe publication, the book claims “Jensen collapsed and died at the Rome Olympic Games during the 175 km team time trials following his use of amphetamines and nicotine acid.”24 Apart from the fact that the time trial was 100 kilometers, not 175, author Barrie Houlihan pushes the unsubstantiated claim that not only Jensen but also two of his team­mates had amphetamines in their systems.

Born of good intentions, Dying to Win forwarded the CoE’s pater­nalistic agenda. Houlihan, a respected sports science professor, did not mention the 31 other cyclists who suffered heatstroke during the 1960 Rome time trial. Instead he focused on Jensen’s death by a drug that was never proven to be in his system. The CoE effort to warn athletes of the dangers of drugs—dying to win—promulgated the false terms of Jen­sen’s death tale and illustrates how both journalists and historians could write history in a way that fit a preconceived moral narrative.

Continue to page 6 for more from Spitting in the Soup »
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