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The Morality Myth Behind the Modern Anti-Doping Movement

Drug testing in sports did not begin with the intent of creating a level playing field. Instead, early proponents believed sports doping was a "dangerous form of moral deception."

by Aaron Gordon
Jul 13 2017, 5:19pm

Illustration by Mark Jamotillo

This story is part of a series about former high school high jumper Eric Thompson, who in 2007 tested positive for a small amount of cocaine while at a junior national meet and was subsequently suspended by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. His case set a precedent for future anti-doping sanctions.

On August 26, 1960, Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen collapsed and died during the 100km Olympic team trial in Rome, a tragedy that would turn out to be a major turning point in the war on drugs in sports. Despite 31 riders having dropped out of the race—including one of Jensen's teammates—because of the 104-degree heat, Jensen's death was almost immediately blamed on performance-enhancing drugs, specifically amphetamines and blood vessel dilators.

The evidence cited were media reports at the time that said the Danish team trainer told the Danish government that he had given a stimulant to all four team members. But at the time nobody knew for sure whether drugs were the cause of Jensen's death or whether there were even traces of any stimulants in Jensen's system because the autopsy had not been released publicly.

As Mark Johnson details in his book Spitting in the Soup, Ludwig Prokop, a prominent medical advisor to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), thought drugs were harmful to athletes and provided little to no benefit. He believed that sporting authorities should act quickly to ban their use. Jensen's death only confirmed his assumptions. Prokop authored the IOC's official report soon after the incident and blamed Jensen's death on the drugs he allegedly took, specifically amphetamines, although the report did not cite any actual evidence or reports from the Italian authorities that proved that Jensen took any drugs prior to the race. Still, the narrative stuck, and Prokop's report acted as the impetus for the IOC's first drug-testing programs.

In March of 1961, three Italian doctors who performed an autopsy on Jensen determined that he died of heatstroke and a skull fracture when his head hit the pavement after he passed out (riders didn't wear helmets back then). The doctors found no traces of drugs in Jensen's system. But it would take decades to disprove the theories that Jensen died from drugs, a fact Prokop himself wouldn't concede until the 1990s, by which point the damage had long been done.

So Prokop had been peddling fiction, but it was a powerful narrative, the seed from which the modern anti-doping movement grew.

The 1960s were a flashpoint for drug use in society in general, and concerns about the harmful effects of marijuana and heroin were a popular topic. By then, the anti-drug arguments outside of sports had been well-rehearsed. Naturally, the sports world adopted this playbook, according to Griffith University Professor Ross Coomber who wrote a paper on how recreational drug use policy has affected athlete drug use policy.

Problematize uncontrolled drugs? Jensen's death checked that box. Link the drugs to foreigners or dangerous classes? The Western world had no problems here, constantly linking rampant drug use in sport with communists, particularly the Soviets and East Germans. Frame the drugs as distorting our basic humanity? The Council of Europe's 1964 anti-doping convention called drug use in sport a "menace" that had already undermined the entire notion of sport. "Doping is a dangerous form of moral deception," the convention's official report read, "apathy on the part of those morally responsible is a crime against humanity."

According to Johnson's book, major voices like Prokop weren't really concerned with the sanctity of the record books. They still believed drugs didn't aid performance much at all. The concern was closer to that of reefer madness than a level playing field. "The fudging of the truth about Jensen's death is important in the history of doping in sports," Johnson wrote, "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 pro-science and pro-health researchers into moral evangelists."

By the time World Anti-Doping Agency was founded in 1999, the sports doping discussion would include explanations of a "level playing field" and notions of "fair play." But the moral angle has never really left the conversation.