Is this the Olympics or War?

On August 26, 1960 a Danish cyclist named Knud Jensen fell from his bike, fractured his skull and died. Initially, the source of his death was unknown; it was proposed that the death was the result of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a heat stroke. Following this death it was reported that two other Danish cyclist collapsed due to heat stroke. This sequence of events raised suspicion among cyclists from other countries. Many wondered why only Danish cyclist were having issues with heat. According to Thomas Hunt an American cyclist named Michael Hiltner said that the Danish amphetamine usage was common knowledge. Suspicions of amphetamine usage among the Danish cyclist were confirmed when the Danish trainer, Oluf Jorgensen, admitted to providing the athletes with Roniacol, a drug shown to improve blood circulation. This is not the first nor last case of performance enhancing drugs being used in international competition. Performance enhancing drug usage ages back the ages of the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece. According to Dr. Larry Bowers, the word doping is rooted from the word ‘doop’ which is a form of opium juice. The original Olympic champions competed for the notoriety and prizes which could explain why one may use drugs to enhance his or her performance. Moving forward to the mid-20th century performance enhancing drugs are being used, but not to bring glory and prizes to oneself.

The Cold War was a time of great tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. In this period there was competition between these two world powers; this competition showed itself in the sciences, the economy, and ultimately culturally. Whichever country proved to excel in these areas felt that this provided an advantage in showing each’s superiority. As discussed several times in class, sports have a way of reflecting a society’s culture. Leading into the 1960 Olympics it had been noted that performance enhancing drugs were in prevalent use. The Soviet team had been prescribed state-sponsored performing enhancing drugs to shift the advantage in its favor. This usage of drugs was an attempt to enhance the Soviet perceived position in the international political power balance. In the United States, doping had not been established in a state-run fashion like in the Soviet Union; however, there was growing pressure for American athletes to beat Soviet athletes at the Olympics. In response to the high expectation levels set on American athletes, according to Thomas Hunt, American official were encouraged to turn a blind eye to drug usage among athletes. The Olympics had become a political ranking system that was fueled by performance enhancing drugs. This aim for international dominance is best encapsulated by George Orwell’s quote from 1945, “Serious sport…is war minus the shooting.”

Though it was widely known issue, performance enhancing drug usage persisted through the 1960’s without much friction impeding its infiltration into the competition. This phenomenon was due to inaccurate and unreliable testing methods. Specifically, in the 1968 Olympics all drug test came back negative for performing enhancing drugs, but it was seen that there were some questionable data found. Other molecules that contained the same basic structure as known drugs were found, yet these molecules went by undetected as performance enhancing drugs because the molecules were slightly altered to appear different than the illegal substance. Leading into the 1970’s the International Olympic Committee realized that the drug usage in the Games had become a moral and ethical problem. Usage was so widespread at this point that athletes now felt they had to use drugs just to compete. According to Jay Silvester of Brigham Young University, a survey was conducted polling athletes that participated in the 1972 Olympic Games. One question asked, “Have you taken anabolic steriods within the past six months?” To this, 61% of athletes responded yes. Another question asked, “Ethically, do you approve of anabolic steriods in athletics?” In response to this question 45% responded yes and 25% said no. Given this information, and other drug scandals dating to present times, performance enhancing drugs will remain a part of the Olympic Games. I argue that the Games would not be in this position if it were not for the rise of the Cold War. Though performance enhancing drugs have been used since the Olympic Games, the widespread use did not surge until the beginning of state-sponsored doping initiated by the Soviet Union. The drive for political dominance manifested itself in the form of athletic competition. In conclusion,due to the increased emphasis on international dominance by the Soviet Union and the United States performance enhancing drug use became popular and prevalent in the Olympic Games and ultimately still play a role in the Games today.

Suggested Readings

  1. Hunt, Thomas M. Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960-2008. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.
  2. Knauer, Kelly. 1968: The Year That Changed the World. New York: Time Books, 2008.
  3. “Historical Timeline – Drug Use in Sports –” Should Performance Enhancing Drugs (such as Steroids) Be Accepted in Sports? Accessed March 30, 2018.
  4.  Silvester, Jay L. “Anabolic Steroids in the 1972 Olympics” Oct 2006, Vol. 76 Issue 3, p11-14. 4p. 2 Charts.

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