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


Even Robert Voy, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief medical officer during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, fell back on a manufactured version of Jensen’s story. Voy is no canting acolyte, yet in his well-researched 1991 book Drugs, Sport, and Politics, he wrote that Jensen died “during the 175.38-km road race” while riding under the influence of “a combina­tion of nicotynal alchol and amphetamine, sarcastically nicknamed by his competitors the ‘Knud Jensen diet.’”25 Besides confusing the road race distance with the team time trial distance, Voy’s account shows that even well-intentioned physicians could easily turn to a rough assem­blage of rumor to support the post-1960s received wisdom that sports doping is fatal to moral and physical health.

Austrian doctor and sports scientist Ludwig Prokop also helped fos­ter the seedling notion that doping represented a significant moral risk to society at large. A prominent member of the European sports medicine community and a leader of early anti-doping efforts, Prokop led the Uni­versity of Vienna’s Institute for Sports Science for three decades and was an IOC Medical Commission member who served in 26 Olympic Games. Seeing syringes in locker rooms at the 1954 Innsbruck Winter Olympics triggered Prokop’s lifelong interest in drugs in sports. Even though there was only circumstantial evidence that drugs played a role, Jensen’s 1960 death compounded the Austrian’s fear that performance-enhancing drugs were getting out of control. Prokop had conducted experiments with per­formance-enhancing drugs in 1956 and concluded that any benefit came from a placebo effect rather than the pharmaceuticals. His conclusion that drugs did not make athletes stronger or faster added to his sense that using them was a risk not balanced by any quantitative return other than potential physical harm. He felt that sports governing bodies should act.

Prokop’s physician’s duty to look out for the health of his patients fused with an impulse to protect athletes from their darker human and social selves and protect the Coubertinian notion of sports as character builder. As Prokop put it in the proceedings of a 1964 sports science conference in Tokyo, sports must shield athletes from drugs to “prevent sporting ideals and values from becoming falsified.” Even when doping was not dangerous to the athlete’s health, Prokop argued that it “must be regarded primarily as a sporting and not a medical problem.” Doping, he concluded, could be regarded “as a dangerous fraud.”26 Like the con­clusions of many members of the growing anti-doping establishment, Prokop’s scientific judgments were clouded by a quest for social purity that was driven as much by emotion as rationality. As Møller writes, Prokop’s desire to get doping out of sports “led him to make unsub­stantiated claims” in the service of his cause.27 Because of Prokop’s stature in the scientific community, his statements that drugs killed Jensen became accepted as fact, even though the amphetamine claims are based on hearsay.28 In the years following Jensen’s death, this was a new phenomenon—a physician’s concern for athletes’ health becom­ing intertwined with an evangelical desire to protect sports and society from moral corruption. The fudging of the truth about Jensen’s death is important in the history of doping in sports not so much because he became known as the first to die from drugs, but rather because of the way his death was unmoored from fact to serve a moral cause. In many respects, the early 1960s marks an irreversible turn of scientists, bureaucratic functionaries, historians, and journalists from proscience and prohealth researchers into moral evangelists.

Prokop wrote the official IOC report on Jensen’s death. In it, he claimed amphetamines and Roniacol (pyridylcarbinol) caused the death. Prokop cited an official Italian postmortem from 1960 as the source for the report’s claim that Jensen died with amphetamines in his system. However, in 1961, Italian authorities produced a report that indicated that drugs did not play a role in Jensen’s death. As Møller puts it, the amphetamines in Prokop’s IOC report seem to be based on a “haphazard guess” rather than any observed evidence.29 The doctor had circumstantial evidence for the Roniacol, since the team trainer stated he administered that drug to his riders. However, the trainers did not mention amphetamines. As neither drug was illegal at the time, there would have been no punishment for telling the whole truth. It seems odd that the trainers would only reveal part of their sports medicine regime when trying to help doctors understand what happened to Jen­sen and his teammates—two of whom also collapsed in the heat.

Twelve years after Jensen’s death, Prokop was sticking to his inter­pretation of Jensen’s death, writing in 1972 that Jensen “broke down and died during the Olympics in Rome as a result of an overdose of amphet­amine and Roniacol.”30 In 2001, however, Prokop admitted that he had never seen an autopsy linking Jensen’s death to drugs. “Perhaps it was wrong of me to draw it out in the report,” Prokop told Danish journal­ist Lars Bøgeskov, who was investigating the Jensen story. Prokop also asserted to Bøgeskov that while it might have been wrong of him to draw conclusions without evidence, in the long run, it was worth it because Jensen’s “death initiated the fight against doping.”31

Ironically, the Roniacol element of Jensen’s death did support Pro­kop’s general claim that drugs and sports can be lethal. However, with their attention diverted by nonexistent amphetamines, media and medi­cal researchers never accurately followed up on the Roniacol angle. A vascular dilator, pyridylcarbinol was thought to improve performance by increasing blood flow to muscles. However, by expanding blood vessels, the drug also lowers blood pressure, which can accelerate dehydration and lead to the sort of dizziness, disorientation, and even organ failure that Jensen suffered in Rome. Given Jensen’s overheated core temper­ature, a scientific argument could be made that Roniacol could have contributed to death by heatstroke. When combined with the Olympic first responders baking Jensen for the last two hours of his life, drugs may indeed have contributed to Jensen’s death—only evidence does not point to the demon stimulant that spawned today’s anti-doping organi­zations as the culprit.

Continue to page 7 for more from Spitting in the Soup »
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