Doping scandals have been shaking the world of sport for almost a half century. However, the recent scandal provoked by the announcement from the three-man panel at the press conference in Geneva, Switzerland on November 9, 2015 seemed different.

Flanked by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren and German police investigator Günter Younger, Canadian lawyer and former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Dick Pound presented “The Independent Commission Report #1” to the press corps. The 323-page report revealed widespread doping and a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” in Russian athletics and in the country’s anti-doping establishment.

Pound listed off charge after charge of corruption including financial payoffs to conceal positive doping results, the destruction of samples in a corrupt Moscow testing lab, and coaches and administrators who demanded athletes dope to enhance their performance.

Among the 42 recommendations specific to Russian sport and anti-doping, the most serious included that the entire Russian athletic federation be suspended from international competition – including, potentially, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, and that five coaches and another five athletes, including 2012 Olympic gold medalist Mariya Savinova (below), be banned for life. 

Finally, the report moved beyond Russia also to recommend serious action against the International Association of Athletics Federations, which oversees track and field competitions worldwide. Holding back specifics because of ongoing police investigations, the report followed arrests in France only one week earlier.

By most accounts, the Independent Commission’s report was a game changer in international sport. No report before it had revealed corruption so systematic and widespread.

But was the “Russian doping scandal” really such a big moment in the history of anti-doping?

After all, as even casual observers of doping scandals over the years will acknowledge, “game changing” scandals have come and gone, yet the common practice of using performance enhancing substances has remained more or less consistent, even as anti-doping efforts have become better coordinated.

Sports authorities often use the analogy of “cops and robbers” in reference to athletes who cheat by using performance enhancing substances. They—most importantly those of WADA, which has overseen global anti-doping efforts since 1999—see themselves constantly chasing those athletes and trying to keep up the technological “race” to test athletes who are supposedly taking increasingly sophisticated substances.

But that analogy oversimplifies the situation, especially if we look at the changing nature of doping rules and regulations rather than at the substances themselves. Doping was not always considered unethical and it took several generations for the ethics to change.

If one really wants to pinpoint the watershed moment in the world of anti-doping and sport it was 1967. It was in that year that the highest level of sport administration—the International Olympic Committee (IOC)—banned certain performance enhancing substances.

As the sports community increasingly challenged and abandoned the cherished Olympic ideal of “amateurism” during the cold war, the IOC turned instead to anti-doping as the moral bedrock that would maintain the ethos of pure sport. But maintaining the virtue of sport on these terms has proven a tremendous challenge to sports leaders everywhere.

From Curiosity to Controversy

There is good evidence that some athletes during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used a variety of substances as “one off” solutions in competition—the use of a certain substance or method to enhance performance on the day of the event.

Alcohol, strychnine, coca, kola, tobacco, ultraviolet rays, purified oxygen, and other equally exotic substances were used, mainly before or during endurance events such as long distance running, pedestrian walking, and cycling. Such usage was common in these sports that often attracted large spectator crowds.

Asking whether these substances enhanced athletic performance misses the point. Athletes, their coaches, and other handlers believed they worked and used them because they intended to enhance performance. Thus they should be considered historical examples of “doping.”

One interesting thing about the turn of the century is that athletes, coaches, and many sports fans alike maintained an open mind, even a spirit of curiosity about what effects the substances might have on athletes’ bodies.

Certainly there were those who disagreed, and at times voiced their concerns publicly, but often those voices were based on religious temperance and concerns with social vices in general – drinking, gambling, and “unruly” social behavior.

The first scientific experiments on the effects of substances on performance and fatigue were conducted in a spirit of curiosity. In fact, biomedical science and athletes’ curiosities about what could make them go faster for longer fed one another.

In one of the first systematic series of experiments on human endurance, respected physician Sir Robert Christison, professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh and president of the British Medical Association, set out in the 1870s to test the “restorative and preservative virtues” of Peruvian coca-leaf extracts by performing experiments on both himself and students. His tests revealed positive results during extremely long bouts of walking and he subsequently published his findings in the British Medical Journal in 1876.

While results of Christison’s experiments and similar ones had not previously been available for common readers, they were covered in a number of popular science and medical journals in the late nineteenth century. Some athletes participating in long distance events read them and experimented in turn.

In this environment of curiosity and experimentation, creating rules against the use of “dope” was seen as unnecessary in human sporting competition.

In fact, it was in horse racing that the first doping rules were created, though ironically the rules were designed to prevent trainers from impairing the performance of their horses. Slowing horses down made it easier to fix a race.

Amateurs, Professionals, and Anti-Doping

In human competition, the condemnation of substance use emerged slowly in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

As national and international sport organizations vied for attention and power in the 1920s and 1930s—the decades sport truly became “international”—they battled over what “true” sport meant.

Far and away the most important dispute in the “sport wars” of the times was between those who defended amateur sport and the “true sportsmanlike behavior” embodied by amateur athletes, and profit-driven owners benefitting from the growing tide of professionalism and the athletes who felt they could make a few bucks—or even potentially a living—from sport.

The Olympic movement had quickly become the main ambassador for amateur values. Much of that is owed to the Games’ founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin (right), although the ideals Coubertin envisioned for the Games were far more complex than those represented by amateurism and the practices of the elite public school system in England, from which amateurism found much of its inspiration.

Coubertin expected athletes to be morally upstanding role models. Drawing on ideals from literature about medieval chivalry, he believed athletes should embody “a knighthood. … ‘brothers in arms,’ brave, energetic men united by a bond that is stronger than that of mere camaraderie.”

Of course, stating such lofty ideals and following through on them in the actual sporting practices of the Games themselves were two entirely different things.

In the Olympic Charter, amateurism was not formally defined until 1930. Athletes who participated in the Games, that version stated, “Must not be … a professional in the Sport for which he is entered or any other sport” and “Must not have received re-imbursement or compensation for loss of salary.”

With rumors spreading that some athletes were using certain substances to gain advantage, the amateur/professional divide determined whether or not athletes were criticized. The class position of athletes and administrators played a crucial role in determining the line between “clean” versus “doped.” Criticisms of working class athletes—almost all of which were excluded from amateur sport—were few, but amateurs, it was thought, represented true “sportsmanship” and therefore had to be clean.

This class divide can be seen in two important cases of athletes who competed in the early days of the Olympic marathon event. Even by the turn of the century, marathon running was considered a borderline amateur/professional case; it played a central role in the Olympic Games but prize money was regularly awarded in other events.

Runners Thomas Hicks (below left) and Dorando Pietri (below right) won the 1904 and 1908 Olympic marathons respectively. While officials knew that both of them ingested strychnine along with other substances, both runners received little moral condemnation because the sport itself teetered between amateur and professional.

But by the 1920s and 1930s, with the doping issue raising its head and the IOC and its affiliate organizations increasingly defending the purity of amateur sport, the first serious discussions of the morality of drugs emerged. The International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), which oversaw track and field, was the first major organization to condemn drug use as “cheating.”

In 1928, the group unanimously adopted a rule against “stimulants,” publishing the first major rule against drugs in human sport in its Handbook. The restriction stated that “Doping is the use of any stimulant employed to increase the power of action in athletic competition above the average” and that breaking the rule could lead to suspension “from participation in amateur athletics.”

By the 1930s, the IOC had become the most powerful sport organization in the world and had taken a stronger stand on amateurism.

Two controversies in that decade heightened concerns about the degree to which athletes were willing to push the limits of performance enhancement, especially the use of state resources to improve performance and potentially the use of “dope” in order to help them push those limits further still.

First, American authorities accused Japanese swimmers of using “purified oxygen” during the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Even if the accusations were based more on nationalistic fervor on the part of the Americans than actual proof of the practice, IOC members took notice and the accusations and hearsay received widespread press.

Second, IOC members were fully aware of rumors and accusations during and following the 1936 Games in Berlin that the National Socialists provided state financial and bureaucratic resources to improve their chances of winning the most medals—which they did—in direct conflict with amateur principles. The German case leading up to the Berlin Games was not one of doping, per se, but reflected the seriousness of the IOC’s concern about any activities that would enhance athlete performance and contradict the spirit of amateurism.

In the wake of these episodes, the IOC launched an investigation. IOC Vice-President Henri de Baillet-Latour announced in a letter that “amateur sport is meant to improve the soul and the body [and] therefore no stone must be left unturned as long as the use of doping has not been stamped out.” In the same letter he also made the exaggerated claim that “[d]oping … likely implies an early death.”

Before the commission meeting in Cairo in 1938, American member Avery Brundage (who would take over as President from 1952 to 1972) wrote, “[t]he use of drugs or artificial stimulants of any kind cannot be too strongly denounced and anyone receiving or administering dope or artificial stimulants should be excluded from participation in sport of the O.G. [Olympic Games].”

IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour (left) in 1936, under whose direction the first statements against dope were made in the 1930s. Avery Brundage (right, pictured here in 1964), IOC member before WWII and later President (1952), whose strong amateur beliefs played a role in the creation of anti-doping rules.

Brundage’s hand-written sentence became the commission’s formal recommendation and was repeated, almost verbatim, in its report. It was then published in the IOC’s Bulletin and that, in turn, became the formal position against doping in the Olympic Games.

While bureaucratic activities were interrupted by World War II, in 1946 the Olympic Charter included the statement (under the heading “Resolutions Regarding the Amateur Status”) that “doping” was a subset of amateur principles. That position would remain in the Charter until 1975, one year after the IOC abandoned the formal amateur principle in its Charter.

The Postwar Fight Intensifies: Keeping the Flag of Idealism Flying

The use of drugs in athletics grew dramatically after World War II. The first two decades after World War II witnessed increasing use of drugs to enhance performance, the employment of new drugs, increasing scientific sophistication, and in some cases the aid of state and private actors to help athletes.

While most applications before WWII had been “one offs” – substances taken just before or during events, in particular amphetamines or derivatives that enhanced energy – in the postwar years drugs employed on a day-to-day basis as part of athletes’ training regimes became more common.

The use of “pep pills” to create energy or fight fatigue was still common and generally accepted in sport.

But the story of performance enhancement in sport changed with the development of anabolic steroids. Steroids were not just new drugs, they were drugs administered systematically and this was part of the reason that they were so strongly condemned at the top levels of sport.

Even though anabolic steroids had only been synthesized in the 1930s, by the late 1940s and then into the 1950s there was a rising interest in the drug’s potential to strengthen and rejuvenate the body. In the United States, for example, Paul de Kruif’s top-selling 1945 publication The Male Hormone strongly defended the ability of steroids to enhance energy, build strength, combat fatigue, and even to extend lifespan.

At the highest levels of Olympic sport, drug use intersected the dynamics of the cold war.

After the 1954 World Weightlifting Championships, American coach Bob Hoffman and the team’s physician John Ziegler were convinced that Soviet weightlifters were gaining an advantage from steroid use. With the aid of the Ciba Pharmaceutical Company, which produced the synthetic steroid methandieone (Dianabol), Ziegler gave the drug to weightlifters at the York Barbell Club in Pennsylvania.

From there, the use of anabolic steroids became more common in weightlifting circles but also spread to various track and field events including shot putting, hammer throwing, discus, and several other strength-related events.

Avery Brundage, whose original hand-written note was still in the Olympic Charter as a subset of amateur restrictions, served as President of the IOC during the heady cold war years. Wanting to preserve the principles of amateurism but recognizing at the same time that the cold war was pushing athletes’ training regimes to unthinkable levels of professional-like commitment, the IOC attempted to push Olympic sport back to the amateurism its founder Coubertin envisioned.

“Sport, which still keeps the flag of idealism flying,” Brundage wrote, “is perhaps the most saving grace in the world at the moment, with its spirit of rules kept, and regard for the adversary, whether the fight is going for or against.”

The IOC went so far as to attempt to create rules against excessive training regimes, including the restriction of numbers of hours per day or week to train, but to no avail. The use of performance enhancing drugs, however, was a different thing.

Brundage was understandably concerned over a crisis in cycling during the 1960 Rome Summer Games. Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen collapsed riding his bike during the road race and subsequently died. Amphetamines were assumed to play a role in his death, and thus anti-doping took center stage on the IOC’s policy agenda.

Fifteen days after Jensen’s death, Brundage and the IOC Executive Board met and in 1962 Brundage organized a doping subcommittee to be directed by the head of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Sir Arthur Porritt.

The subcommittee summarized its conclusions in the IOC’s Bulletin in 1963. It defined doping as “an illegal procedure used by certain athletes, in the form of drugs; physical means and exceptional measures which are used by small groups in a sporting community in order to alter positively or negatively the physical or physiological capacity of a living creature, man or animal in competitive sport.”

As a definition of doping, the statement was fraught with problems because certainly many of the doping practices of athletes were not illegal, and “exceptional measures” was extremely vague. But the statement did reflect the fear of just how far beyond the restrictions assumed within amateur principles athletes were now willing to go.

Then, after meetings in Tokyo and Tehran, the IOC in 1967 formally defined doping as “the use of substances or techniques in any form or quantity alien or unnatural to the body with the exclusive aim of obtaining an artificial or unfair increase of performance in competition.”

The Mexico City Summer Games in 1968 were the first held after this new definition of doping. There, limited random tests were conducted on athletes, and while a test for anabolic steroids did not yet exist, those tests were developed in 1973 and testing for steroids was first implemented at the Montreal Summer Games in 1976.