‘Breakfast of champions’ – a brief history of doping in sports

Earlier this week, major news outlets reported that multi-Grand Slam winner Simona Halep has been temporarily suspended from tennis after yielding a positive drugs test at the 2022 US Open. On the same day, RUSADA (the official Russian anti-doping organisation) released a statement stating their refusal to publish the results of the investigation into Kamila Valieva and her entourage in the aftermath of the 2022 Winter Olympics, on the grounds of her status as a ‘protected person.’ Valieva was just 15 years old when she tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned heart medication used to increase endurance in sports – her domination of the sport and her status as a minor generating international outrage. She is the current world record holder for the women’s free skate, short program and total scores – having helped the ROC to team gold pre-test revelation, a disastrous free-skate saw her finish an (unprecedented) 4th in the individual event. Images of tearful Valieva, coupled with the empty stare of teammate Anna Shcherbakova after unexpectedly winning gold instead, prompted an outpouring of sympathy from across the world. Her new free-skate for the 2022/2023 season, recently debuted at the Russian test skates, is based upon her traumatic experience of the games, featuring a costume with a black hood and accompanied by music from The Truman Show. The case has ignited debate around minimum age requirements for elite athletes, organisational transparency, agency and blame, and become another tragedy of (suspected) doping in an age-old history. This article offers a brief history of the extensive origins of doping in sport.

Desire to enhance performance in sports has naturally originated with the development of sport itself. The earliest recorded stimulants are attributed to ancient Greek and Roman civilisations and include the consumption of alcohol, hallucinogenic mushrooms and other ‘drugs’ of plant origin. While these stimulants are certainly a far-cry from modern doping, the premise of ‘unnatural’ enhancement of performance, whether to increase strength or reduce fatigue, originated in the primitive phases of mass organised sport.

By the late 19th century, these desires were compounded by the fast development of ‘modern’ medicine. The use of stimulants was considered commonplace, and were not necessarily viewed as cheating. Boxers were publicly known to use strychnine tablets, or mixtures of brandy and cocaine (Prokop, 1970). In the 1870s, ‘Six Day’ cycling races and pedestrianism (6-day walking races) became popular, with both lasting continuously for the full duration; naturally encouraging the development of stimulant ‘mixtures’ to sustain athletes. Thomas Hicks, winner of the marathon at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, was sustained by a mixture of brandy and strychnine which caused a near-fatal collapse at the finish line. After extensive research and public use of performance-enhancing stimulants in the early 20th century, the IAF became the first official body to ban doping in 1928.

From the 1940s however, doping spiralled in severity and complexity. 1941 saw the first recorded use of testosterone as a performance-enhancer on a horse named Holloway. John Zeigler, and American physician, was unsatisfied with the side-effects produced by testosterone, and instead developed the first anabolic steroid (used to increase strength and muscle mass) which was mass made and sold in the US after 1958. The 1940s to 1980s saw a boom in the use of these drugs and also an increase in the number of complications. Two cyclists, Knud Enemark Jensen and Tom Simpson, both died mid-race in the 1960s and were found to have taken amphetamines, which allowed them to push themselves past exhaustion. The period also saw the development of the coercive state-sponsored doping programme in East Germany, in which elite athletes were administered steroids to boost the image of Communist competitors during the Cold War. By 1969, editor of Track and Field News John Hendershott dubbed anabolic steroids as the ‘breakfast of champions.’ By the 1972 Summer Olympics, full drugs testing was performed on all athletes, overseen by the IOC.

Following tightened restrictions, the 1980s onward were peppered with more high-profile cases. Canadian Ben Johnson’s infamous disqualification from the 1988 Olympic 100m final, (in which just two participants never received a positive drugs test in their career) caused international shock waves, as doping had been partially dismissed as a largely Communist bloc problem. The issue remained particularly acute in cycling, with countless scandals including that of Festina and Lance Armstrong. In 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was formed, which continues to oversee world-wide drug testing. In 2015, the organisation banned Russia from numerous international sports, forcing athletes to compete under a neutral flag, following allegations of a state-sponsored doping programme.

These issues of doping, as seen this week, still permeate the sporting world. Obviously, these cases further research into the effects of these drugs on the human body and mind. They also ignite wider debates – Valieva’s case, for example, prompting questions of consent and agency in athletes under the age of 18. It has also, and rightly so, reignited accusations of racism in elite sport. Whether Valieva and Halep are found to be guilty of doping knowingly or not (for neither case has reached any conclusion), the historical use and treatment of performance-enhancing drugs open up much broader debates.

Source not linked:

Prokop, ‘The Struggle Against Doping and its History’ (1970).


Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel