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A Brief History of Performance Enhancing Drugs

Doping is not a new problem. In fact, it has been part of sports for a century.
Image via C-SPAN

It all started with dog testicles. Or maybe it was guinea pig, ram, rabbit or sheep testicles. All were used in the creation of Charles Brown-Sequard's "Elixir of Life," which became the earliest known performance enhancing drug in American professional sports when Pud Galvin of the Pittsburgh Alleghenys used it in 1889. Galvin earned the win in his first game on the elixir, and The Washington Post duly reported on the success as evidence of the elixir's power, as well as Galvin's resourcefulness.


The first scientifically proven incident of doping occurred at an Austrian horse race in 1910. By 1933, the word "doping" began to appear in sporting dictionaries like the German Beckmanns Sportlexikon, but the cultural aversion to doping in sports, particularly in America, was still a few decades behind. The concept of doping as immoral did not appear in Western sport until the mid-1900s. Early anti-doping efforts focused on horse racing.

Doping in American sports, particularly team sports, truly began after World War II, as soldiers who were introduced to amphetamines as a way to deal with combat brought their new knowledge (and addictions) back to the clubhouse. Amphetamines were not yet under any sort of federal control and were, in some cases, easier to find and procure than cigarettes. By the 1960s, amphetamines weren't just popular in international individual sports like cycling and track but had become commonplace in the locker rooms of American team sports.

In the case of baseball and football, the drugs weren't always introduced by fellow players but rather by teams and their doctors. I.C. Middleman, the hilariously named doctor of baseball's St. Louis Cardinals, told Sports Illustrated's Bil Gilbert in 1969 about the veritable pharmacy he used to treat the club:

"We occasionally use Dexamyl and Dexedrine [amphetamines]. . . . We also use barbiturates, Seconal, Tuinal, Nembutal. . . . We also use some anti-depressants, Triavil, Tofranil, Valium. . . . But I don't think the use of drugs is as prevalent in the Midwest as it is on the East and West coasts."


Professional football took it to the extreme. In 1963, the San Diego Chargers became the first professional football team to hire a strength coach, Alvin Roy. According to Chargers lineman Ron Mix, "The first day of training camp he told us he wanted us to start lifting weights. I had been lifting but most players back then didn't. He said we have to assimilate more protein. He held up a bottle of pink pills, Dianabol, and we didn't know it was a steroid. He put them out in cereal bowls." The 1963 Chargers, known as football's first steroid team, romped to an 11-3 record and won the AFL championship with a dominant 51-10 victory over the Boston Patriots.

Roy came to the Chargers from LSU, and many other colleges were already supplying their unknowing players with drugs. In his autobiography Out of Their League detailing his years at Syracuse and later with the St. Louis (football) Cardinals, Dave Meggyesy writes of his revelations from attending the East-West Shrine game in 1963. Meggyesy spent a night out with Don Chuy, an offensive lineman from Clemson, and decided to ask about benzedrine, one of the most common amphetamines in that era. When Meggyesy said he never encountered "bennies" at Syracuse, Chuy looked "incredulously like he thought I was putting him on. He told me they used bennies by the gallon at Clemson and refused to believe we didn't take them at Syracuse."

Jim Calkins, co-captain of the University of California football team in 1969, tells a similar story. He told Sandy Padwe of LOOK Magazine in 1970, "So the coach is all-dominant, all-powerful. I've never seen one player call a coach a bleephead like they call us all the time. And nobody ever questions their training methods, the way they run us into the ground, the drugs they give us." Calkins quit the team in 1970, and he cited side effects from team-prescribed anabolic steroids as responsible for beginning his disillusionment with big-time college football.


Tell-all books like Meggyesy's, Jim Bouton's Ball Four, and Jim Brosnan's Pennant Race combined with reporting like Padwe's brought the widespread use of amphetamines and steroids in the locker room to the national consciousness. Baseball and football players were not only heavily using those drugs—as well as barbiturates, tranquilizers, and painkiller— they were doing so under the supervision and approval of their parent clubs. In many cases, the drugs were openly prescribed by team doctors.

In 1973, the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency convened yearlong hearings on the "proper and improper use of drugs by athletes." At the time, hard information was difficult to come by and few academic studies had been performed on the myriad drugs available to athletes. According to chairman Senator Birch Bayh in the hearing's opening statement, "We are looking for the facts and frankly, the reason for these hearings this morning is that we don't know the facts."

The facts, as gleaned from the hearing's transcripts, show rampant use of amphetamines, anabolic steroids, and other drugs across sports and at every level from high school through the professional ranks. Doctors from professional teams reluctantly acknowledged treating players for amphetamine addictions. Olympic track athletes discussed the throngs of businessmen with briefcases of drugs present at nearly every track meet. And one high school track coach even mentioned hearing a football player from his school was "going to give it a try in a game with Mescaline."


According to Bayh, previous hearings held by the committee led to amphetamines being placed under stricter federal control. The Senator claims the supply of amphetamines dropped by 80 percent following the introduction of the controls. However, similar controls were not introduced for anabolic steroids until 1990, when they were made a Schedule III controlled substance by the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990. The primary response to the 1973 hearing was largely the introduction of educational literature and programs by major sports leagues, such as this from the NCAA:

And this from MLB:

President Richard Nixon praised Major League Baseball's efforts. He wrote to MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn, according to Appendix 28 of the hearing transcripts, a note "to congratulate you on your efforts to make organized baseball aware of the problem." Nixon continued, "As you know, the fight to curb drug abuse needs the participation of every one of us, and you and the members of the major baseball clubs can play a critical part in discouraging young Americans from falling victims to this grave social disease."

Dr. Jack Scott, one of the foremost figures in the social athletic movements of the 1960s and 1970s, didn't buy the tactics of the leagues. Scott noted in his Senate testimony that MLB's booklet failed to cite anabolic steroids even once. Rather, it included what Scott called "extensive talk" about "opium, the opium poppy, codeine, heroin, morphine, marijuana, methadone, things like that which for people like myself who have to work in the world of athletics and are concerned with these problems, this kind of literature is not directed at us to give us information so we can deal in constructive fashion to combat drug abuses in athletic sports."


Dr. John Kaplan, a law professor from Stanford cited by Scott, was more blunt:

"Any drug program using athletes is bound to be a failure. First of all, it is using hypocrites because athletes pop the pills like anybody else. Secondly, they have no expertise. They don't know what they are talking about and they only heighten the interest of young people in drugs. I think sports are patting themselves on the back. They're probably trying to combat the publicity about athletes using drugs."

For roughly the next quarter-century, the issue of drugs in sports fell back below the surface. Although news of weightlifters and track stars failing or avoiding tests at the Olympics and other international events like the Pan-American Games dotted sports pages throughout the 1970s and 1980s, performance enhancing drugs never swelled into the scandals seen since the late 1990s. Even reports like Sports Illustrated's 1985 expose on "The Steroid Explosion," which included Tampa Bay Buccaneers lineman Steve Courson admitting his steroid habit and claiming "75 percent of the linemen in the NFL are on steroids and 95 percent have tried them," failed to drum up public outrage.

Although steroids had been common in football since the 1963 Chargers showed how useful they could be, baseball players held a superstitious aversion to weight training and anabolic steroids until the 1980s, when Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and the rest of baseball's early steroid adopters showed their powers. Despite reports like the 1997 USA TODAY story on San Diego Padres star Ken Caminiti's "goody bag" filled with unmarked pills, it took an AP reporter spying a vial of androstenedione in McGwire's locker in during his record-setting 1998 run for athletic steroid use to explode into the scandal that still hangs over Major League Baseball.


The end of the millennium also saw the creation of the World Anti-Doping Association, the International Olympic Committee's answer to the growing drug problem. WADA and American sports leagues have adopted a punitive policy of increasingly rigorous drug testing and increasingly harsh suspensions to solve the problem. However, suspensions for performance enhancing drugs continue to pour in, and the scandals, like Biogenesis last year, continued. Drug use remains rampant among athletes and has shown no sign of stopping despite the added pressure on the players.

Dr. Lawrence Golding testified as an expert in the 1973 Senate hearings. He devoted time in the 1960s and 1970s as one of the few doctors to perform experiments on amphetamines and anabolic steroids. In an interview with the Newspaper Enterprise Association following the hearings, Golding claimed, perhaps, dramatically: "I don't think there's any top rate athlete in the world who is not or has not been on amphetamines or steroids."

"There's an epidemic among champions," Golding continued. "They're concerned and not in favor of what they're doing but they do it because they feel they have to." As for solving the problem? "Prohibition," Golding said, "never worked in keeping us from drinking whiskey." In a separate interview, Golding claimed, "Athletes are undaunted by fears and threats. The results of interviews… show that the desire to win is greater than either the fear of exposure or the possible harmful side effects."

As Scott and Kaplan suggested, the early anti-drug campaigns by the NCAA, MLB, and other national sports organizations were little more than attempts to avoid the bad public relations of drug use. The problem was simply kicked down the road until , by the end of the century, iit became too big to ignore. Then, when confronted, leagues and organizations passed the blame down to the athletes. Meanwhile, the producers and distributors of these drugs are left to profit, and in the case of Biogenesis's Tony Bosch, given handsome deals and protection from the law in exchange for damning evidence against players.

The "desire to win" mentioned by Golding will never go away, particularly in the era where chemical enhancement can be the difference between a multi-million dollar contract and the end of a career. No level of punishment or prohibition can solve this problem, despite the efforts of WADA and American sports leagues. But the athletes are but one small piece of the history of performance enhancing drugs. The vial of andro did not spontaneously appear in Mark McGwire's locker. Until the historic roles of teams, pharmaceutical companies, and the government in distributing and popularizing performance enhancing drugs is investigated and understood, drug use in sports will continue to be a problem without a solution.