Anti-Doping Post-1967: Ethics Passé and Morally Dulled Individuals?

The 1967 rulings by the IOC effectively ushered in the modern era of drug testing and cheating. With the 1967 rules in place, authorities throughout the 1970s and 1980s set their attention to the more mundane tasks of coordinating testing procedures, advancing the technology for testing, and seeking compliance in international bodies participating in Olympic sport.

With enhanced testing throughout the 1970s and 1980s, alongside a series of scandals that highlighted the issue to the general public, the “cops and robbers” analogies began and only became more common as media accounts vividly described—and embellished—the dangers of drug use and a world of “cheating” in sport spinning out of control.

Almost immediately after the 1967 rules were created, the media discovered the issue. In 1969, for example, Sports Illustrated ran a cover-story titled “Drugs: A Threat to Sport,” and illustrated it with a splayed-out silhouette of an athlete, surrounded by six groups of pills labelled “muscle relaxers,” “painkillers,” “anabolic steroids,” “amphetamines,” “barbiturates,” and “tranquilizers.” A large hypodermic needle is angled toward the silhouette with the sharp end pointed into the athlete’s body.

1969 Sports Illustrated cover “Drugs: A Threat to Sport” with various sport-doping drug types (left). Poster from the 1983 Pan American Games (Caracas) where surprise tests for steroids were conducted and several athletes were caught (right).

Doping scandals have flourished regularly since 1967. The first major of these occurred at the Pan American Games in Caracas in 1983, when advanced testing procedures produced 19 positive tests and caused several athletes to fake injuries or to create other excuses for leaving the Games in fear of being caught. 

In 1988, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, then the fastest man in the world, tested positive at the Seoul Summer Olympic Games, leading to a major Canadian government inquiry that reshaped anti-doping in that country and eventually influenced sport policies at the highest levels, including current WADA policies.

In 1998, international attention also focused on the Tour de France after customs officials and police discovered hundreds of doses of endurance-enhancement drug erythropoietin (EPO) in vehicles belonging to the TVM and Festina teams. The scandal resulted in riders staging a “sit down” strike during stage 17 and the Tour itself nearly collapsed.

Ben Johnson, wins the 100m final at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea (left). Bicyclists “sit down” in protest during the 1998 Tour de France (right).

Ensuing investigations led to prosecutions, and the event played a central role in the creation of WADA in 1999. Several years later, cyclist Lance Armstrong’s career imploded spectacularly after he finally admitted to doping. Meanwhile, baseball was witnessing its own “steroid era.”

But by concentrating on these scandals over the last 35 years or so we get a distorted version of the history of doping and anti-doping. The “cops and robbers” analogy that posits good guys against bad guys implies an ethical standard that has gone unchanged over time. Yet, this analogy does not fit doping because doping has not always been considered wrong,

Indeed, the first lesson to be learned from the history of doping and anti-doping before 1967 is that positions on doping were mixed, and the further back in history we go, the more mixed they become. Only after 1967 has the “ethical” issue been presumed and “fixed.”

Ethics per se was never really at the heart of the anti-doping movement. A combination of moral panic alongside the defense of the original amateur value system in the Olympic movement played more prominent roles in shaping attitudes about and policies toward the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Writing in Olympic Review in 1965, Sir Arthur Porritt—who had overseen the IOC subcommittee that created the first rules in the Olympic Games—proclaimed that what was at stake in the fight against doping was no less than the end of sport. But instead of couching his argument on principles, including medical ones, he attacked the character of athletes. Drug users, proclaimed Porritt, had “inferiority complexes” and all those “interested in the basic values of amateur sport” should recall that a doper is a “mentally, physically, and morally dulled individual.”

Top-level officials of sport in the 1950s and 1960s didn’t rely primarily on arguments against the use of performance enhancing substances because of health risks and that doping was contrary to the fair playing field. Instead, they sometimes took “fanatical and proselytizing” approaches (in the words of Scottish historian Paul Dimeo), attacking athletes and using quasi-religious language. The “evil” of drug use threatened sport’s sanctity, and its pure foundation at the time was premised on Olympic amateurism.

Ironically, the amateur foundation upon which those who created the first drug rules based their position was collapsing at the very moment rules and testing began. Catering to pressures to allow financial incentives to enter sport more openly and from state and private agents around the world that increasingly saw the amateur restrictions as an unnecessary burden, the IOC finally gave in.

In 1974 the IOC changed its Charter “Rule 26” to permit International Sport Federations to dictate eligibility in each respective sport. Because most Federations had much to gain from allowing increasingly professionalized athletes in their sports, the 1974 rule change effectively ushered in today’s era of fully professionalized Olympic athletes and crossed the threshold of the Olympic Movement’s central principles.

With “the amateur ideal” gone, the IOC and other sports bodies staked the legitimacy of sport on ferreting out doping.

A Los Angeles Times article published in late 1989 summarized the four most important men in the world of sport for the decade that was about to end. Alongside the recognizable names Peter Ueberroth, who organized the successful 1984 Los Angeles Games, Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped end sport’s cold war competitions, and IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch was the fourth less recognizable name—Manfred Donike.

The Times’ recognition of Donike, a German biochemist who drove much of anti-doping behind the scenes during the 1970s and 1980s by developing testing technology, simultaneously acknowledged that anti-doping was by the late 1980s a fully established and institutionally legitimized part of sport. Anti-doping had, in only two short decades, become a permanent fixture in the world of sport.

Drugs and the Olympic Brand

Today, the World Anti-Doping Code—WADA’s ultimate rule book on drugs in sport—proclaims that the “Fundamental Rationale” for anti-doping is the protection of “the spirit of sport.” “Anti-doping programs,” the Code states, “seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as ‘the spirit of sport’. It is the essence of Olympism.”

Protecting sport’s “purity” has always been a central mission of the Olympic movement. Seeing his nascent movement as much more than a sport movement, founder Pierre de Coubertin wrote in Fortnightly Review in 1908 that the Olympic Games were “something else … not to be found in any other variety of athletic competition.”

It was this “something else” that IOC members had in mind when they put restrictions on certain performance enhancing substances.

As athletes, coaches, administrators, state actors, and television and other companies that could potentially profit from the exploits of athletes moved sport forward during the Cold War era towards enhancing performances and winning medals, the IOC looked back to its past for justification to ban certain elements of performance enhancement. Performance enhancement in general could not be contained—although the IOC tried—but a relatively simple rule to ban certain drugs and other practices could preserve the purity of Olympic sport.

Today, the preservation of Olympic purity—its “spirit”—is a vital component of the Olympic brand. Ultimately what history teaches us is that the latest Russian drug scandal is not, as is often portrayed, potentially the most serious case of “cops and robbers.” It is really about the kings of sport representing a sport system that must, by definition, produce the very best athletes and performances in the world while not threatening the “purity” of sport’s “spirit.”

The battle being waged is not between individuals on the right or wrong side of sport’s “law.” The battle is over the necessity to produce the best and most lucrative performances possible while still preserving the image of sport’s purity.

What is at stake in the battle is “the spirit of sport.” That, after all, is the Olympic brand.