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Spitting in the Soup, by Mark Johnson

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A look at the history of doping in sports with an emphasis on the American experience

Spitting in the Soup by Mark Johnson
Spitting in the Soup by Mark Johnson
(Photo: fmk)

Spitting in the Soup by Mark JohnsonTitle: Spitting in the Soup - Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports
Author: Mark Johnson
Publisher: VeloPress
Year: 2016
Pages: 408
Order: VeloPress
What it is: A look at the history of doping in sports with an emphasis on the American experience
Strengths: It is high time that we acknowledged the myths associated with doping and anti-doping and began to move away from them
Weaknesses: Takes an Olympic-centric view of doping that is not always approppriate

Some of them were dreamers, some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent, they were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature.
~ Jackson Browne, Before the Deluge

Today's anti-doping movement began in the 1950s and early 1960s when a group of like-minded individuals came together and began to promote the ideal of clean sport. Arnold Beckett, Albert Dirix, Pierre Dumas, Ludwig Prokop and JGP Williams can probably be classed as the movement's founding fathers1. Of those, Dumas is the name most familiar to cycling fans, he being the Tour de France's doctor in the 1950s and 1960s, a period that covered Jean Malléjac's collapse on the Ventoux in 1955 and Tom Simpson's death on the same slopes a dozen years later. But it is Ludwig Prokop and his role in the reporting of the death of Knud Enemark Jensen who we are going to talk about here.

In the same way the UCI claim that the Malléjac incident was "the first trigger to raise awareness and marked the beginning of the UCI's fight against doping"2 the IOC claim that the death of the cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen at the Summer Olympics in 1960 helped harden their anti-doping stance.3

The twenty-three-year-old Jensen was one of four members of the Danish team time trial squad at the Rome Games. The TTT took place over a distance of 100 kilometres on August 26, the first Friday of the XVII Olympiad (the Opening Ceremony took place the day before), and was made up of three laps of an out-and-back circuit along the Via Cristoforo Colombo, running from the Olympic velodrome on the Viale dell'Oceano Pacifico south-west toward the coast near Ostia.

Spitting in the Soup by Mark Johnson

Map of the team time trial course at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics

The first team went off at 0900 hrs, the Danes at 0932 hrs, the last team two minutes later4Reuters reported that the temperature was in the 90s (fahrenheit, 32-37 celsius). At the end of the first circuit the Danes were fourth fastest of the thirty-two squads that started, with a time of 44'31", behind the Italians (43'49"), the Russians (43'56") and the Germans (44'14"). One of the Danes, Jørgen Jørgensen, is reported by Danish journalist Lars Bøgeskov - who has investigated the death of Jensen - to have dropped out at the commencement of the second lap, at the end of which the Danes were still in fourth, behind the same three but now 1'22" off a medal. Eight kilometres from home and with the time approaching noon Jensen is reported to have shouted that he was feeling dizzy. Three kilometres later he had fallen behind his team-mates Niels Baunsøe and Vagn Bangsborg, who had to take to physically supporting him in an effort to get him to the line.

Spitting in the Soup by Mark Johnson

Jensen being supported by his team-mates (Getty Images)

Bangsborg let go in order to spray water on Jensen. Baunsøe let go when Jensen responded yes when asked if he was ok. Jensen then collapsed and fell to the ground.

Spitting in the Soup by Mark Johnson

Jensen crashes (Getty Images)

Unconscious, the Dane was taken by ambulance to the finishing area where he was placed in a military hospital tent.

Spitting in the Soup by Mark Johnson

Jensen being stretchered away (Getty Images)

At 1530 hrs he was pronounced dead. He is today still one of only two athletes listed as having died in competition during the Games5.

Three days after Jensen's death, an August 29 United Press International wire report6 said that the Danish newspaper Aktuelt was reporting the squad's trainer, Oluf Jørgensen, as having admitted giving Ronicol - or Roniacol, a trade name for nicotinyl alcohol (pyridylcarbinol), which acts as a vasodilator, improving the circulation - to his riders. Jørgensen denied providing them with stimulants. The use of stimulants was also denied by six Danish cyclists who had already returned to Copenhagen.

While the Danes denied the use of stimulants others took the view that it was amphetamines that had caused Jensen's death, chiefly Ludwig Prokop, a medical adviser to the IOC who wrote a report on Jensen's death. That report is no longer available but here's Prokop interviewed by Lars Bøgeskov in 2001:

"I was there when Knud Enemark died, and from the beginning I suspected that doping might be the cause. I sought information straight away but I couldn't gain access to the post-mortem report. A couple of months later in Monte Carlo I met the Italian professor who carried out the post-mortem on Knud Enemark, and he told me that, among other things, he had found amphetamine in the Danish cyclist. However, I have to admit that I have never seen documentation to prove that his death was caused by doping. Perhaps it was wrong of me to draw it out in the report."

The post-mortem report into Jensen's death is not publicly available. What is known of it, though, is that the Danish police felt that there were no charges arising, as the death had been caused by heatstroke. This did not deter Prokop from perpetuating his version of Jensen's death. A version that led, in March of 1962, to the IOC Executive Board voting to create a medical commission under the chairmanship of Arthur Porritt (who was succeeded in 1967 by Alexandre de Mérode). As recently as 2015, WADA was claiming that Jensen's death had "increased the pressure for sports authorities to introduce drug testing" and that Jensen's "autopsy revealed traces of amphetamine". Having the official imprimatur of WADA and, before them, the IOC the linkage between amphetamines and Jensen's death has been repeated by many others. As well as Lars Bøgeskov, Werner Møller (The Scapegoat) and Paul Dimeo have sought to correct the record on Jensen's death7. Mark Johnson (Argyle Armada) draws on all three in Spitting in the Soup8. Here he is talking about one of Møller's conclusions:

"According to Møller's research, Jensen's rumor-driven death-by-amphetamine story ossified into accepted fact because journalists and historians handed the story from one to the other without bothering to check primary sources. It was a house of cards that hardened into an unassailable edifice of ‘truth.'"

Another story that has ossified into accepted fact concerns the bodies that piled up on mortuary slabs throughout the early years of Gen-EPO. Here Johnson looks at Bernat López's The Invention of a ‘Drug of Mass Destruction': Deconstructing the EPO Myth, which challenges the much repeated claim that 18 (or more) Dutch and Belgian (and other) cyclists died from EPO in the early 1990s. The Jensen and EPO myths - along with others passed over by Johnson, such as the manner in which Arthur Linton's death was mythologized - have in common a problem within cycling writing with regard to sources. A problem most writing about sports has with regard to sources. Jensen's death, Linton's death, the EPO deaths, they are all referred to time and again in books, articles, papers9 written about doping. Once a story has been written down once, of course others are going to repeat it without verifying it. And, in the repetition, they will invariably add errors of their own.10

It would be interesting to spend some time wondering why we allow ourselves to make such errors - perhaps Tim Krabbé was right: "the facts miss the heart of the matter" - and why we should resist the urge to add erroneous colour to our stories. It would be interesting to consider why it was so easy to believe that amphetamines killed Jensen11 and why it was so easy to believe that bodies were piling up on mortuary slabs in the early years of Gen-EPO12. But Spitting in the Soup isn't about such things. It is instead a dose of Gladwellian counter-intuitive paradigm-shifting, an attempt to make us stop thinking of doping as being simply about about victims and villains. This approach, Johnson argues is like "viewing the Grand Canyon through a toilet-paper tube", a reductionist viewpoint that "leaves out layers of historical context and economic segmentation - most glaringly by ignoring the fact that drug-free play is a relatively recent moral precept forced upon sports whose participants have always been chemically enhanced."

Anti-doping needs a bit - a lot - of counter-intuitive paradigm-shifting and I applaud Johnson's efforts in Spitting in the Soup to ventilate some of the myths that have grown up around anti-doping. Without necessarily condoning them one could argue that until recent years - until about a decade ago - some of those myths helped to focus minds on the problem of doping. They could be seen as having been necessary lies. But in the same way that we can, to a degree, excuse the doping that went on in cycling up to about 2007 but not after - excuse the doping that went on before the UCI and teams stopped just paying lip service to anti-doping - there is no excuse for these myths today and, rather than pushing forward the anti-doping agenda, they are actually holding it back.

The problem, however, I have with Johnson's colour-filled telling of the story of anti-doping - like Malcolm Gladwell, he ranges far and wide, with stories of shoes and Mormons and references that range from Francis Fukuyama to Frank Zappa all part of the telling - is that it is itself reductionist, it itself leaves out layers of historical context. As an example, consider a claim that, I think, is fundamental to Johnson's argument: before the anti-doping movement came along in the 1950s and the 1960s (a movement that Johnson rarely resists characterising as anti-doping evangelists, anti-doping missionaries, anti-doping puritans, anti-doping fanatics, an anti-doping religion or an anti-doping morality bandwagon) no one cared about doping. Here's Johnson:

"In the midst of this explosion of professional sports, athletes taking drugs to ply their trade was not the scandal it is today. Rather than report on drugs from a position of moral outrage and disgust, the press described athletes enlisting chemicals to extend human performance as an unremarkable matter of fact. Cycling did not operate under the disapproving glare of paternalistic anti-doping agencies and morally outraged fans. Nor did the press link doping with moral depravity. If anything, when newspapers wrote about doping, they did so to illustrate an athlete's exemplary commitment to his craft."

It is true that, certainly in the dying years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, newspaper reports of US six day races often made matter of fact reference to the use of drugs. But that should not be taken as indicating universal approval of doping. Consider if you will the American rider WA Rowe who set paced Hour records in 1885 and 1886 and in 1888 had this to say about the use of stimulants13:

"I have consulted the finest physicians and doctors in the United States, and they tell me the greater part of my success lies in my abstinence. I feel myself that it is so. I am just as good one day as another. I never have an off day, whereas people who take stimulants are good today and nothing next day. It sometimes takes them a fortnight to get back into good order. Brother professionals have admitted as much to me. When I rode my greatest distance in the Hour, I had not done any work on a bicycle for a week on account of bad weather, and though I thought I should not be in condition, yet when I came to ride I found I accomplished the greatest performance ever done in the world - and all on tea, too, my boy!"

Rowe is not alone in having professed a dislike for what we today would call doping. American stars such as Marshal ‘Major' Taylor and Bobby Walthour also spoke out against the use of stimulants. Consider the fact that legislators at the state level in the US sought to ban the stimulant-enabled excesses of the original solo six day races. Or that French reports of the 1896 Garden Six14 called it "a cruel sport" and bemoaned "the lamentable scenes of horror which marked the final hours of this indescribable spectacle." Run forward and the early decades of the Tour de France are not without negative reference to doping. Consider this oft-repeated quote from Henri Desgrange: "Some of our riders think nothing of doping. We cannot reproach strongly enough similar procedures, which run so counter to our idea of sport." The rest of that quote makes it clear that, even in 1920, doping was not seen as being just about the athlete: "The vigour of our condemnation is aimed less at the riders who drug themselves than at the managers, and above all certain doctors who don't hesitate before using such means. Those, like us, who would like our race to become magnificent will never accept such procedures." You can argue that Desgrange's condemnation was little more than lip service - you can point to the rules of the 1930 Tour, the first to be run under the national and regional teams format, and how they said that the race organisers would not be responsible for the cost of riders' medical products - but you still have to face the fact that Desgrange felt it necessary to tell L'Auto's readers that he condemned doping.

The notion that there was a time when there was universal acceptance of doping is as misleading as the alleged belief in a prelapsarian world without doping to which those who promote an anti-doping ethos wish to return us. There has always been debate, at some level, on the topic. Pretending that there hasn't is pointless.

A perhaps bigger problem with Spitting in the Soup is that it takes an Olympic-centric view of doping. Johnson expends a great deal of effort on the issue of amateurism at the Olympics, building toward an argument that the IOC's stance on doping was really just about keeping out the riff-raff (only professionals doped and professionals were all of a lower class), as if the IOC owned anti-doping. However, those five men I named earlier as the founding fathers of anti-doping - Beckett, Dirix, Dumas, Prokop and Williams - they weren't all part of the IOC. Dumas, he wasn't even part of the UCI, he was employed by the Tour's organisers, a commercial enterprise about as far removed from the ideals of amateurism in sport as you can get. These men, they used whatever tools were available to them to push their anti-doping agenda. They used links with politicians (the French anti-doping laws that came into force in 1966 and caused a strike at the Tour came about as a result of Dumas's courting of Maurice Herzog, the then French sports minister). They used the Council of Europe as a way of influencing other governments. They lobbied individual international federations and they used the IOC as a tool to work on those federations collectively. Rather than leading, the IOC was pushed.

Johnson himself makes a similar point about the IOC being pushed rather than leading when looking at the birth of the World Anti-Doping Agency. The 1998 Festina affaire is the great foundation myth of WADA. But, as Johnson points out, Festina was just one of a number of scandals rocking the world of sport at that time. While it gobbled up the column inches the trials of East German doctors and sports officials - which spread over a number of years throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s - were causing considerable disquiet. And the IOC's own reputation was taking a hammering as a result of the 1998 scandal surrounding the awarding of the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City. When the IOC convened a meeting in early 1999 at which an Olympic Movement Anti-Doping Agency was proposed - to be headed up by IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch - they were met with stiff resistance, from the British in one corner, through their sports minister Tony Banks and the Americans in another, through Barry McCaffrey, Bill Clinton's drugs tzar. WADA was born as a compromise, the IOC ceding ground to international governments (ground which, today, the IOC seems to be attempting to reclaim with its apparent efforts to undermine, and even supplant, WADA).

These problems, though, should not detract from what Johnson does achieve with Spitting in the Soup. He has taken a complex story and presented it in a way that is both colourful and offers food for thought. We will probably never get to a point where Jensen's death is not linked by someone to amphetamines or the bodies that piled up on mortuary slabs are not rolled out to damn EPO. But maybe through Johnson's efforts to bring the likes of Paul Dimeo, Werner Møller, Bernat López and others to a wider audience we will in the future make fewer of these mistakes. Maybe in the future we can talk about the merits of anti-doping divorced from the emotive arguments of the past.

1 In Paul Dimeo's A History of Drug Use in Sport: 1876 - 1976: Beyond Good and Evil these five individuals are identified as being the core group among attendees at early Council of Europe meetings at which a coherent response to doping was first formulated. When I asked Dimeo if it would be fair to characterise these five as being the founding fathers of the modern anti-doping movement - if something as lacking in cohesion as the anti-doping movement can be characterised as having founding fathers - he added David Cowan, Alexandre de Merode, Manfred Donike, Arne Ljungqvist, and Arthur Porritt, who can also claim certain paternal responsibilities here.

2 See the UCI's 40 Years of Fighting Against Doping, an annotated version of which can be found here.

3 In 1937 IOC president Henri de Bailet-Latour wrote that "no stone must be left unturned as long as the use of doping has not been stamped out."

4 You can find the details in volume two of the official report on the XVII Olympiad.

5 Francisco Lázaro died during the marathon in the 1912 Games.

6 Available online in the archives of the Chicago Tribune, pages 51 and 54.

7 Dimeo and Møller can at least claim to have encouraged WADA to remove the reference to Jensen from their website after having pointed it out in 2015.

8 You can read the relevant chapter here.

9 I have given up counting the number of scientific papers on the topic of blood doping that wrongly repeat the claim that Gastone Nencini was caught transfusing blood on his way to winning the 1960 Tour de France.

10 I'll leave it for you to spot the error in my synopsis of Jensen's death above. Johnson, he manages to claim that "the Danish riders did not carry water on their bikes; the coaches thought bottles would be too heavy", despite his cited sources referring to Vagn Bangsborg spraying water on Jensen and despite water bottles being visible in the photographs taken shortly before Jensen's collapse.

11 Jensen was not the first cyclist whose death has been linked - rightly or wrongly - to amphetamines, as Cyclisme Dopage's archives show. The earliest I have seen is a newspaper report dating from 1949.

12 Enough people believed it for the UCI to investigate the matter.

13 Stimulants in use in that era included alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, digitalis, ether, heroin, nitroglycerine, opium, strychnine and more.

14 Regular readers will know that the 1896 Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race was won by the Irishman who wasn't, Teddy Hayle, and saw Major Taylor make his professional début.

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You can find an interview with Mark Johnson on the Café Bookshelf.