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Drinking, Doping, and the Cannabis Olympics: Another VICE Sports Q&A with Sports Historian David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt, author of 'The Games: A Global History of the Olympics,' talks about the storied history of cheating and doing drugs at the Olympic Games, and whether WADA has changed anything at all.

by Aaron Gordon
Aug 3 2016, 4:50pm

Photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

This week as part of VICE Sports' Olympic preview, we are taking a look at the sports War on Doping.

All the talk about Russian doping scandal, or chemically enhanced performances in general, tends to omit the fact that cheating has always been a part of the Olympics. And why not? Get a bunch of hyper-competitive people together and give them shiny medals for winning—is it any shock they'll bend the rules to do so? Everything we know about human nature says they will.

In tug of war—which used to be an Olympic sport, and damn well should be again—guys at the front of the line would wear spikes on the tips of their shoes to kick the shins of the other front-line man. It was also considered cheating early on in the history of the Games for high jumpers and pole vaulters to break their fall with sand bags or anything else somewhat soft. And those are just two of my favorite examples.

Read More: The Case for Ending the Sports War on Doping

To get a bit better perspective on this, I once again called up sports historian David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics. Last week, when we chatted about the history of the Olympics in general, we deliberately skipped the parts about cheating so we could save it for this week.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

VICE Sports: How long have athletes been using substances to gain a competitive advantage? What are some of the earliest examples?

David Goldblatt: Right from the off. I think it's worth saying doping itself is not a legal concept until 1968. Prior to that, you could do what you like. You want to smoke 20 fags before you do the 100 meters? No problem. A variety of alcohol was used as a stimulant, particularly bizarrely, for long-distance runners. At this time, we're not even at Physiology 101.

Wait, so people are getting drunk for long-distance races?

In the 1908 Olympics, the guy ahead of the Italian, who ends up not winning it, I think he's a New Zealander—someone offers him a glass of champagne about three miles out, which he drinks. Then he gets the most terrible alcohol poisoning at the end of the race. We know the man who won the 1904 marathon in St. Louis was being administered a combination of brandy, egg whites, and strychnine, which as you know is highly poisonous, but in microdoses is a powerful stimulant. As late as 1952, three Norwegian speed skaters were unable to take part in their race at the Winter Games because they had all taken too much amphetamine sulfate. So it's pretty widespread.

And the Tour de France, from the very beginning, it's such an insane event you think, how can anybody do this without drugs? And certainly all of that—strychnine, smelling salts, amphetamines, alcohol—was widespread in cycling before the First World War.

So that's the context, but the story of modern doping begins at the 1952 Helsinki Games, where the Russians show up and win an absolute shitload of medals in weightlifting and wrestling. Obviously, they're good at it, but the American coach, Bob Hoffman, can see something is up, and he works out in conversation with them pretty quickly that they're taking testosterone. He thinks, OK, we'll try some of this.

This guy, Humberto Selvetti, won bronze in the 1952 Games. Courtesy El Gráfico/Wikimedia Commons

So Americans are taking testosterone in the 1950s. As I said, this is all completely legal at this point. They then very quickly by the late 50s move on to anabolic steroids, which are synthetic testosterone in effect. And in 1960, the Olympics finally has to take note. Prior to this, they had looked into it on occasion, but their main issue was, how do we keep nasty drug-taking professionals out of the game? Gentlemen amateurs would never stoop to this.

In 1960, a Danish cyclist dies in the long-distance road race. Although we think he probably died from sunstroke and banging his head, he definitely had some sort of stimulant in his body and there was a complete moral panic at that point. It takes them eight years to sort out a drug-testing regime, which first is used in Mexico in '68, by which time steroid use is absolutely endemic, certainly in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where it's become a pretty much state-sponsored operation, comparable with what's going on today [in Russia].

But across the United States in elite athletics, certainly, you know MLB by this point, this is the era where Doc Ellis throws a no-hitter on LSD. So the drugs are absolutely everywhere in American professional sports at this point, but also in all the Olympic sports. In the book I tell the story of Ken Patera, the weightlifter, freaking out at a 1973 congressional hearing on this issue, complaining about Vasily Alekseyev beating him at the '72 Munich Olympics by saying, "His steroids were better than mine because I couldn't afford the pill. But now I've got the steroids and we'll see who's the best!"

Well, that sort of speaks to the wider sporting culture in which steroid use is pretty widespread. And of course in cycling it's all off the scale, and by the time the 1990s comes around and the next generation of stimulants, EPO, drug transfer comes around, that's all going on there.

Another sort of superb anecdote from that era: modern pentathlon has a problem with people taking downers for the shooting competition. They started drug testing, reluctantly. And they found basically that every single competitor in high-level modern pentathlon was taking these downers before the shooting. So they stopped drug testing altogether. And the only way they managed to sort it out was to have the running after the shooting rather than the other way around on the grounds that if you have to run 3,000 meters cross country you weren't about to take a downer. So yeah, it's completely endemic by the 70s in Olympic sport.

IOC President Thomas Bach. Photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

So with all the news about Russian doping going on, I loved the anecdote from your book about how, during the 1980 Games in Moscow, the IOC basically trusted the Soviets to handle all the testing, and of the 8,000 or so athletes tested, not a single one tested positive. They hailed it as the "cleanest Olympics ever." A West German doctor later used another method of testing on the samples and found something like 20 percent of athletes and 18 gold medalists tested positive. So in the context of Olympic history, how unique is what we're currently seeing with Russia?

State-sponsored doping programs are clearly not unique. That absolutely happened. I think it's worth remembering it's not just state-sponsored. Commercial companies and teams in cycling are just as capable of this. I think the thing that's really different this time is the level of evidence and investigation, and the existence of WADA, for all its limits, has put this out there in the most unequivocal manner. That's really what's new here. I think state-sponsored cheating is probably a bit more high tech than they were in 1980, but what's unique is the existence of WADA and the level of evidence against them.

So obviously WADA is a relatively new organization, I think Sydney 2000 was the first games that they were in effect for?

They're only really cracking at Athens 2004. They're set up in 2000, but Athens is the first they're really operational for.

Is there any historical basis for believing WADA is actually making an impact?

It's so hard to say because of course people don't tell the truth about drug taking, so it's very hard to know what the real levels of it are. As the Russian operation suggests, if you're going to cheat you have to have better science and better organization and more money behind you than ever before, because WADA raises the bar. It makes it harder to cheat. It also has the consequence of creating an even more intense pharmacological arms race between testing and hiding.

But my sense is, yeah, I think it has made a difference, you know? WADA's existence has changed the tone of the conversation. It's forced the IOC and the international sporting federations to absolutely nail their colors to the mast on this issue. Whether they follow through on that, we'll see. But yeah, I think at that level, it has made a difference.

In terms of cheating though, oh man, it's so hard, it's so hard to say. Such a difficult, technical sort of question. At the same time they're making it harder, the prizes and temptations are greater. It's really hard to know, actually, what the balance of it is at the moment. But then, is now the moment to judge it? This is a long-term thing, isn't it? It took us 80 years to get here. It's going to take us more than 16 to get out of it.

In the grand scheme of things, almost every single holding of the Games featured some form of cheating, going back to the original Olympics where they couldn't agree on the rules and the debates were basically whether one team's version of the rules was cheating or not.

Sure.

Gentleman athletes off to the 1912 Games. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

What are we accomplishing with this hard-line take on no doping or performance enhancing via drugs? Are we accomplishing something competitive, or are we losing sight of the importance of this issue, which is that athletes should be managed in a healthy way?

That's everything for me. People's health is everything. Being an Olympic athlete, how mad is that? What mad way of living your life, how vulnerable are you emotionally? If we're going to sustain this ritual and this practice, those folks need to be protected from their own madness and their own pathological competitiveness, which is both absolutely necessary for them to be the best and, I think, emotionally and practically destructive. So I think there does have to be protection.

On the whole performance-enhancing thing, I really think they just need to take cannabis and alcohol and caffeine off the list. [Editor's note: caffeine is on the WADA watchlist, but is not prohibited.] Let's just start there before we go any further. I do find it absolutely hysterical as a habitual user of cannabis that it is a performance-enhancing drug in the contemporary Olympics. When it's like the 400 meters Oreo jumping competition, then maybe, but otherwise...

I would watch the Cannabis Olympics.

They had one, actually, in Sydney in 2000 as part of the anti-Olympics protest movement. They had a "CannOlympics" as they called it, in a field. Which I just think is great. More of that. Have you seen the cannabis bus that is now operating in Denver? I just think we need a few Olympic canibusses.

Anyways, the drugs thing is really interesting in that there is a sort of argument saying, why don't we just have the pharmaceutical free-for-all? I don't really want to go there. I can see it's an interesting debating point, but we're talking about people's health and people's lives here, and it's mad enough being an elite athlete without that. So I'm for protecting them from their own worst instincts, to be honest. I think that's why it's important.

I don't really want to get all moral and pure about it all because it's a lot of gray area. Is it an unfair competitive advantage that some people grow up rich and some people grow up poor? What bigger competitive disadvantage can you be at than to suffer malnutrition in your youth? But we don't make that an issue. So I don't want to get sanctimonious about it. I just think athletes' bodies and lives need to be protected.

The sanctimoniousness also makes me uncomfortable because it feels similar in substance to the original IOC ethos of the upper-class, male version of the athlete.

Yeah, though of course those guys were boozing like hell, probably when they were smoking a bunch of opiates. So I wouldn't necessarily take them at their word.

But yes, it seems to me there are lots of ways of being an athletic ideal and an athletic hero. Aping the 19th-century gentlemen, if that's your cup of tea, I think that's cool, but it just seems to me as just one of a hundred different ways of being and we shouldn't get too hung up on it.

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