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


In fact, an argument can be made that had he taken them before the race, amphetamines might have saved Jensen’s life. Møller points out that one of Jensen’s teammates, Niels Baunsøe, suffered no ill effects. If Baunsøe had used amphetamines along with Roniacol, the effect of the amphetamines could have countered the performance-degradingeffects of Roniacol. While Roniacol causes vascular expansion, amphet­amine sparks release of noradrenaline, a hormone that triggers vascular contraction. If it were the case that Jensen took only Roniacol while Baunsøe took that drug plus amphetamines, Møller suggests that it “seems more likely that the use of amphetamine helped or even saved Baunsøe than it is that it killed Jensen.”32 Absolute proof exists that the riders raced in extreme heat and without water. Their trainer’s word provides evidence that they were all on Roniacol. The combination of these three factors can cause lethal dehydration. No evidence exists to suggest that the riders also used amphetamines. However, at the physi­ological level, the first three factors plus amphetamines would be less lethal than those three alone—an inconvenient possibility that under­mines the simple narrative that any and all performance-enhancingdrugs are bad. Growing hysteria about drugs in sports was getting in the way of a measured analysis of their actual risks and benefits—even precluding the possibility that drugs could be helpful at all. More importantly, in the interest of promoting an anti-doping agenda, the posthumous focus on amphetamines permanently turned public atten­tion away from what was a mountain of evidence pointing to the likely cause of Jensen’s death: bad emergency medical care.

As for Jensen’s autopsy report, it is still inaccessible. After Jensen died, his body was spirited off to the Istituto di Medicina Legale for an autopsy by three Italian doctors. After four days, the Italians shipped his body to Copenhagen for burial—and then radio silence from Italy. The IOC sent repeated letters to Italian and Danish officials asking for the results of the autopsy, but they got nothing. It was not until seven months after Jensen’s death that the IOC received official word from Italy: Jensen died of heatstroke, and there were no drugs in his system. The actual autopsy report never saw the light of day.

Today, Møller is a professor in the Faculty of Health at Aarhus Uni­versity, where his research focuses on teasing out the truth from a sports doping history that is muddied with political and moral ambitions and economic incentives. From his office in Denmark, Møller told me the anti-doping campaigners who were inspired by Jensen’s death are like early Amazon missionaries. Before the arrival of the Christians, Møller said, cyclists were like indigenous peoples living “with completely dif­ferent notions and ideas and values.” The missionaries showed up and pronounced, “We need to do something to save these people from them­selves and their beliefs, and we want to christen them.” Missionaries were not anthropologists interested in suspending their own preju­dices in the interest of understanding foreign ways. They, like the early generations of anti-doping evangelists, were there to impose an ideol­ogy on people who never asked to be saved. In Møller’s opinion, the ride-clean rhetoric some riders began to proclaim was a self-preserving feint. “Like Indians who said, ‘Well, we don’t want to be shot here, so we’ll start saying that we are Christians,’” he thinks cyclists talked pure sports and then, once the anti-doping evangelists turned away, went “back to praying to their previous gods, or their real gods. They tried to say what the missionaries wanted to hear because they were in a dis­advantaged position.” Møller’s research leads him to conclude that the messianic zeal of many anti-doping researchers and sports functionaries impeded their ability to get to the facts of Jensen’s death, in part because those facts did not serve the needs of the growing anti-doping mission. A rider who died from heatstroke is not a useful symbolic foundation for an anti-doping campaign.

Møller’s analogy of Christian missionaries imposing alien values on an isolated tribe is apt. During the first hundred or so years of cycling, society took it for granted that science at the service of higher human performance—including pharmaceutical science—was a moral good. From tuberculosis to penicillin to polio, drugs had improved human life in astonishingly positive ways. This link between science and good­ness also held true for cycling, since it was the first sport truly born of a technological invention. “Man is extremely innovative,” Møller told me. “Cycling is the first genuine, modern sport, in that it is related to the invention of a machine which expanded mankind’s ability to travel the world by his own powers.” Science was beneficial, and chemicals were part of science. “We could create a brave new world which was fantastic because of science,” Møller said. And, of course, this technical virtuous­ness could also be applied to sports other than cycling.

The same year Jensen died, society’s optimism about pharmaceutical science and faith in the motives of drug makers began to crack under the weight of a catastrophe—thalidomide. Photographs began appear­ing in newspapers showing babies born with severe birth defects—no limbs, no eyes, extra appendages growing from shoulders. Sold over the counter to pregnant mothers as an anti-nausea treatment, the drug developed by West German pharmaceutical company Chemie Grünen­thal was causing thousands of birth defects and stillbirths in the more than 40 countries where the product had been sold since 1957. Tha­lidomide was eventually blamed for severe abnormalities in more than 10,000 newborns. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that the chemical’s full horrors would be disclosed. Until then, the public bobbed along on a bright current of faith in science and misplaced trust that pharmaceuti­cal companies would put human safety first.

The horrors of the thalidomide disaster profoundly complicated our attitude toward the role drugs play in society. The miraculous pharma­ceutical inventions that ended the nightmare of polio could also create appalling new disfigurements. And as society at large was forced to reex­amine its celebratory attitudes toward drugs, inside the world of sports, bureaucracies were born that forced a similar reanalysis of the wisdom of the everyday nature of drugs for improved performance. Although thalid­omide caused quantifiable death and harm that led to the establishment of stricter drug safety approval procedures, in sports, newly emerging anti-doping systems were based more on emotion than evidence.

About the Author

Mark Johnson is a sportswriter and sports photographer. He has covered cycling and endurance sports as a writer and photographer since the 1980s. His work often focuses on the business of pro cycling—a topic that frequently intersects with the sport’s long history of doping. Along with U.S. publications like VeloNews and Road, his work is published in Cycling Weekly in the UK, Velo in France, Ride Cycling Review and CyclingNews in Australia as well as general-interest publications including the Wall Street Journal.

VeloPress published Johnson’s first book, Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life, in which Johnson was embedded for a year with the Garmin-Cervélo professional cycling team. A category II road cyclist, Mark has also bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. A graduate of the University of California, San Diego, the author also has an MA and PhD in English Literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from the home he shares with his wife and two sons in Del Mar, California. Learn more at, and follow Johnson on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

About the author: RoadBikeReview is an online community of cyclists who share a passion for the sport. Visitors of the site regularly purchase gear to upgrade their bikes, share inspiring photos of rides, and keep up to date with the latest industry and technology news. Which products perform best? Where to buy them? Where to ride? How to ride better? Cyclists come to for the answers.

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