Podium Café: Spitting in the Soup covers a wide range of topics, from the myths that have grown up around anti-doping (such as the death of Knud Enemark Jensen, or the bodies that piled up on mortuary slabs in the early years of Gen-EPO) through the confused attitude of the IOC (for some in the IOC the fight against doping was initially seen as just a means of protecting the split between amateur and professional sports) and on to the even more confused attitude of the American government to pharmaceutical enhancement. It's been quite a job to write, I'm guessing, there's a lot of research needed to cover so much ground?
Mark Johnson: Samuel Johnson told Boswell "the greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book." The lexicographer's maxim held true over the three years it took me to research and write Spitting in the Soup.
There is a deep well of scholarly research into the history of doping in sport - a source that I was unaware of until I interviewed University of Texas historian John Hoberman for a piece I penned for VeloNews in 2012. After speaking to Hoberman - a giant among the global community of doping historians - I read his book Testosterone Dreams and was astonished. The academic history of doping in sport challenges the popular notion that doping in sport is, and always has been, categorically evil and morally corrosive.
I sensed a book here, so I spent about a year following the footnotes in Hoberman's work building a comprehensive sense of how attitudes toward doping in sport have evolved. I also wanted to understand which historians had expertise in the various stages of this progression. It was a year spent in academic journals and prose - dense and eye-opening, but largely inaccessible without a good measure of scholastic patience and doggedness, and without access to a university library (which I have since I live just down the road from the University of California, San Diego). Perhaps because I spent five years doing a PhD in English literature, I love this sort of sleuthing. When I'm burrowing into library stacks and scrolling through microfiche, time disappears.
I thought this written, but overlooked history of drugs in sport was worth unearthing to a larger, non-academic audience. VeloPress agreed. Book contract in hand, I concentrated on interviewing subjects I'd encountered in the historical record as well as talking with the historians themselves. By attending anti-doping conferences in Europe, I was also able to gain a better, often personal, acquaintance with the leading doping scholars working today. Along with tracking down popular press accounts of doping in newspapers and magazines going back to the late 1800s, these individual interviews took about 12 months. Writing the book took another a year, and a lot of that time was dedicated to paring it back. My editor and I left four chapters on the cutting room floor. These chapters looked at the broader context of performance enhancing technology in society at large - America's half-century long experiment with eugenics, cosmetic surgery, tranquilizers, and the history of the search for an antidote to fatigue. While these chapters paint a larger picture of our enduring thirst for and celebration of performance-enhancing medical technologies, my editor felt that they would confuse readers expecting a book on sports. He was right; focus matters. These leftovers give me a good start on a future book.
One of the biggest challenges was how to synthesize years of research into a story that did not became so bogged down in details that it turned into chloroform in print. For example, when writing about how doping was widely accepted, and even celebrated, through the early twentieth century, I found an avalanche of examples of the medical community praising drugs as an antidote to fatigue. I also discovered an eyelid-pinning number of advertisements and popular press articles that celebrated the life and performance-enhancing powers of stimulant drugs. What started out as 15 examples my editor and I ended up paring down to a handful - enough to get the idea across, but hopefully not so many that I flogged a pepped up horse to death.
PdC: In my review of the book I focused on one of the topics that occupies my interest a lot these days, the myths we have in our sport. Some of the people who spread these myths - like the death of the Danish Olympic cyclist, like the deaths of Gen-EPO's young - can be forgiven, they are receiving them from sources that appear to have authority, such as the IOC and WADA. Some of the people who spread these myths can be forgiven for not fully checking the stories they tell: it's really only since the mid- to late-nineties that the internet began to give people easier access to research materials. The others though, the ones who either knew or ought to have known that the stories they were telling were false, can they ever be forgiven? Can any of these stories be seen as having been necessary lies or have they done more harm than good?
MJ: I think the fabrications were born of a desire to execute a praiseworthy goal, not a willful and malevolent need to deceive. They were useful lies that grew out of rumors that sounded like truth, all in the interest of a quasi-religious crusade for ethical purity. For example, there was no direct or circumstantial evidence that amphetamines killed Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen at the 1960 Rome Olympics. However as you point out in your review (and I cover in the book) since the mid 1950s a handful of European doctors were becoming alarmed by how commonplace drugs in sports were becoming - especially cycling.
In part this was because the medical community was also developing a more sophisticated understanding of the risks of amphetamine addiction due to the fact that speed was so wildly popular with everyone from pop stars to sad businessmen to weight-conscious housewives. And as the sixties wore on, a lot of veterans were returning from Vietnam with alarming amphetamine addictions. These clinical concerns dovetailed with a growing medical community interest in athletes' moral well-being.
During the 1960s the sports medicine community expanded its focus from keeping the body healthy into monitoring athletes' moral hygiene. Technicians became ethical shepherds. In a sense, exaggerations about the dead bodies drugs like amphetamines and EPO were supposedly depositing across European roads and playing fields were useful fictions that turned the theoretical risk of drug abuse into actual deaths - not because these early anti-doping crusaders wanted to lie, but because they sincerely felt traditional sports medication practices were unhealthy to body and soul. The higher ends justified the not-always factual means.
This phenomenon is not limited to sports. History is littered with examples of moral crusaders who make far more serious ethical compromises in the interest of securing a higher moral good. Just ask a Native American or Hawaiian Islander who lost it all to the blessed blade of manifest destiny and Christendom. And, as I explore in the book, during the Cold War it was just these types of higher-good rationalization that pushed doping to unprecedented, and definitely dangerous, levels.
The rise of these myths represented a transition away from the relatively dispassionate, technical approach to doping that characterized sports medicine for roughly the first century of professionalism. For example the influential sports science researcher Peter Karpovich wrote in 1941 "the use of a substance or device which improves the physical performance of a man without being injurious to his health, can hardly be called unethical." A careful and measured scientist, Karpovich's research on strength training helped blow up the long held old wives' tale that weightlifting would make athletes slow and stiff (a myth that nonetheless persisted until the 1970s in the NFL and the 1980s in baseball.) Karpovich did not let feelings about the moral "rightness" of drug use in sport cloud his ability to pass judgment on the safety of these substances.
So while he discouraged athletes from using cocaine because it was dangerously habit forming and Benzedrine because it could cause insomnia and "circulatory collapse," drugs that did not cause harm were morally indistinguishable from diet, massage, and equipment improvements through better materials science. "All these means are available for everyone, and they may be used if so desired," he counseled. The useful myths that began to take flight in the 1960s marked a turn away from a focus on how drugs might affect athletes' physical health to an approach that concerned itself with protecting athletes' souls as well as their bodies. It was a striking fusion of physical sciences with spiritual, sacerdotal concerns, and this transition also helped justify the nascent anti-doping community's turn to useful lies about the horrors of doping in sport.
PdC: The IOC's role in anti-doping. I think you and I disagree on some of the parts of the genesis of anti-doping, or on where the emphasis should be when telling the story. This is a story that only really begins in the 1950s and 1960s - that's when the modern anti-doping movement begins, most notably on the slopes of the Ventoux in 1955 and in Rome in 1960 - but I think that by the time you get into the 1970s we're probably quite close in our views on the way anti-doping developed, that by then it had, very much, become the IOC's turf, would that be fair to say?
MJ: Yes, though as I write in the book, anti-doping first appeared on International Olympic Committee turf in the late 1930s. Doping was of interest to the IOC because pros doped, and the IOC was all about preserving amateurism - such as banning professional practices like making money or discouraging the pro habit of using drugs to deliver winning performances (or merely survive the time's cycling death marches). In 1938 the IOC commissioned its first studies into doping in sport. One of those reports frankly concluded: "In professional sports, in cycling above all, doping is practiced on a grand scale." For the IOC in 1938, doping was bad in that it was professional.
In 1946 the IOC formally added its first stricture against doping to the Olympic charter. This early IOC condemnation of doping was a one-line subset of an encyclopedic list of "Resolutions Regarding the Amateur Status." While the charter stated that anyone who takes or administers dope "should not be allowed to participate in amateur meetings or in the Olympic Games," the regulation was not backed by any enforcement mechanisms, let alone a definition of the substances that constituted doping. It was talk, but not much, and not backed by bureaucratic action - more of a warning signal for those who might dabble in professional practices than an enforceable rule.
It really wasn't until the mid 1970s that the IOC girded this 1940s rhetorical signpost not to dope with testing, enforcement, and punishment systems. But those mechanisms were born in a Cold War nursery, and the forces of imperial desire had no patience for the new prohibitionists. Functionally speaking, the new anti-doping programs did not have a chance against the grander forces of nationalism.
In your review, you argue that I downplay early anti-doping voices to support my proposition that anti-doping is a relatively recent phenomenon, and that before the 1960s, few cared whether athletes doped. While I see your point, I think you missed some details. In my book I point out that under the umbrella of the post-war Council of Europe, the sports medicine community did voice alarm in the 1950s. I cite Tour de France doctor Pierre Dumas raising concern after treating Jean Malléjac's amphetamine and heat-induced collapse on Mount Ventoux at the 1955 Tour de France. I also point out that as early as 1895, the New York Times editorialized that athletes should shun the siren overtures of "the modern drug manufacturer" and reject "any such injurious and adventitious aids."
As early as the late 1800s, there were a few voices speaking out against doping in sport. But a few voices do not make a concerted, bureaucratically-girded purification mission. It just makes a few squeaks, that, compared to society's massive indifference to, or celebration of, doping, was the equivalent of a giant piece of social silence and bureaucratic inaction. Until the 1960s no one once cared about doping as a source of ethical corrosion and personal ruin. Until the 1960s, few saw doping as the earth-shaking moral and health crisis it is painted as today.
This indifference was especially true in the USA. While Europeans began forming anti-doping policies and regulations in the 1960s, until the twenty-first century the United States maintained a studiously hands off approach to doping in sports. There is no clearer evidence of this lack of moral alarm than the fact that the Yanks did not get around to forming an anti-doping agency until the year 2000. The fact that the United States did not form an anti-doping force for a full three and a half decades after France and Belgium criminalized doping is pretty strong evidence that until quite recently, in United States doping was not a big deal.
While Sports Illustrated ran a three-part feature story on doping in sport in 1969, this media spotlight was a reflection of larger social anxieties about countercultural drug use, and it did not precipitate legislative action. The articles in the United States' sports magazine of note certainly did not force baseball or football players unions to confront the problem. In fact, as I explore in the book, in the 1970s when a San Diego Chargers psychiatrist named Arthur Mandell notified the National Football League that their players were using alarming quantities of amphetamines, the NFL responded by trying to get Mandell's medical license pulled.
If doping was a problem, exposing it was bad for business and American sports did not want to hear about it. Even when American legislators began yammering in the 1990s about clamping down on youth athlete steroid use, it was political theater in the interest of maintaining political power, not legislation born of any true desire to protect American youth, let alone - god forbid - cut into pharmaceutical industry sales.
The Council of Europe was a child of post-war European desire to not repeat the self-immolating horrors of World War II. By cooperating to deal with social, medical, and economic problems, pan-European organizations would defend the interests of humanity. The anti-doping infrastructure and laws that were born of this praiseworthy paternalism were a profoundly European creation that did not take place in the United States, where government is not the default solution maker, where individual interests are by default morally superior to collective bureaucracies, and where both citizen and government alike tended to step back and allow sports people to shove whatever they wanted down their throats.
As I explore in Spitting in the Soup, if sports doping did not hurt anyone else, and it delivered a better, more profitable show, then why should government get involved? US attitudes toward doping in the national pastimes like baseball and American football were guided by pragmatism, not paternalism. It's a fundamental continental bifurcation in how Americans and Europeans responded to doping in sport, and one that I think is critical to an understanding of the complexity involved with cleaning up sport today. European and American cultures assumed dramatically different states of alarm regarding drugs in sport, and I think this cultural difference that might have skewed your interpretation of the book.
In your review you also suggest that Spitting in the Soup takes a too "Olympic-centric view of doping." Maybe, but I maintain that the Olympic games and the IOC is the alembic through which all doping policies are ultimately processed. The Olympics are central to the book because they are central to the history of doping in all sports. As you point out in your review, the grandfathers of the anti-doping movement like Dumas worked for the Tour de France, not the IOC. However, I point out that one of Dumas' influential contemporaries, and one of the most powerful forces behind the birth of today's anti-doping movement was Austrian Ludwig Prokop. An IOC Medical Commission member, Prokop served in 26 Olympic Games, and was initially alarmed by the number of syringes he saw in locker rooms at the 1954 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. While Prokop and Dumas might have focused on different sports, they were both signal, and contemporary figures in the birth of today's anti-doping movement.
And while IOC presidents like Avery Brundage railed against the commercialization of the Games, as I explain in the book, it was inevitable that the Olympics would have to turn to global businesses to pay the bills that came with staging winter and summer sporting spectacles. In 1978 Los Angeles citizens passed a resolution making it a crime to use taxpayer dollars to fund the 1984 Games. With taxpayers holding a gun to his head - spend our money and you become a criminal - a business genius named Peter Ueberroth took the reigns of the 1984 Games and gave the IOC grandees back in Switzerland a clinic on how to turn the Olympics into a money-printing machine. At first horrified, the IOC was ultimately impressed by the way Ueberroth's Games had mined over $200 million in profit from the Southern California hills; IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch took Ueberroth's corporation-friendly business model and ran with it.
Doping scandals, of course, were sand in the gears of the Olympic dream, and so the IOC was under enormous pressure to minimize brand-bloodying doping scandals. Meanwhile prestige and territory-hungry Cold War states devised various ways to circumnavigate doping regulations and enforcement mechanisms being erected between them and the realization of their imperial desires. The 1984 Olympics play a massive role in the history of anti-doping because those Games illustrated how the forces of nationalism and commercialism would fall upon the still-suckling anti-doping child like a pair of vengeful hammers. And until we understand this story, we oversimplify the problem of doping in sport as one of morally degenerate, chemistry-fueled athletes and innocent bread and water-consuming sheep.
The Olympics play a central role in the history of doping in sport because they are way bigger, and way more influential, than a comparatively small-money, low fan-interest sport like pro cycling. Just ask a Russian in Rio.
PdC: If we look at where we are today, anti-doping is controlled by WADA, an independent body that is not really independent: its money comes half from the IOC and half from national governments and their payback there is that they effectively get to choose the president and thus set the agenda, the IOC picking one term - the current president, Craig Reedie, is the IOC's choice - with governments picking the next. The recent Russian scandal, though, seems to be making the IOC think WADA is too independent: do you think we should be concerned by the way the IOC appears to be attempting to take full control of WADA, retake control of anti-doping?
MJ: Yes. The IOC is in the business of promoting and paying for a global sporting spectacle every two years. Having them police the actors in that performance is natural conflict of interest. Robert Voy, a past chief medical officer for the US Olympic Committee put it best in a 1991 book he wrote on doping in sports: putting the IOC in charge of drug testing is "like having the fox guard the henhouse." For the IOC, there is small gain in scandalizing the very superstars who give the Games the eyeball-drawing attention needed to close multi-billion dollar television deals and sponsorship relationships.
In Spitting in the Soup, I describe how WADA was born of an aborted attempt by the IOC to keep anti-doping enforcement (and the control of anti-doping scandals) under its own roof. The 1998 Festina affair had the IOC freaking out; the last thing they wanted were government police agents showing up at their show and marching athletes off to jail as the gendarmeries had done at the 1998 Tour. A fateful doping conference the IOC organized in Lausanne, Switzerland in February 1999 was a damage containment exercise partly in response to the cycling doping catastrophe that went down the previous summer in France. (It was also an effort to rehabilitate IOC credibility damaged by revelations that the IOC had been bribed to place the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City.) As historian John Hoberman wrote in a 1999 New York Times editorial, the February IOC doping congress was intended "to enable the people who created and tolerated the doping crisis to retain virtually all of their powers."
You'll have to read the book to learn how the IOC's intentions went off the rails and led to the creation of the independent WADA the Olympians did not want. It is a mind-blowing story, especially when you consider that President Bill Clinton's drugs czar took the podium and scolded the IOC for not tackling the problem of drugs in sport - while his own nation was happily, and legally, selling steroids like androstenedione to any high school kid who sauntered into a nutritional supplement store looking for stuff fuelling baseball slugger Mark McGwire's home run streak.
To get back to your question, anti-doping agencies should be independent of the IOC. However, you can't run an anti-doping force without money; testing, enforcement, management, and technology are not cheap. The funds have to come from somewhere - and that somewhere is naturally from the same governments and sports management agencies that doping scandals will embarrass. It's a tension that seems unavoidable, but not insurmountable. After all, the US Anti-Doping Agency unmasked Lance Armstrong, even though he was an American sporting treasure and an economic goldmine for cycling. Given the right leadership, I think WADA can still act independently; even if it is still financially dependent on bodies that can be embarrassed or even financially scarred by the faithful execution of its duties.
PdC: Let's turn fully to the third strand of Spitting in the Soup, America. Who the hell is Orrin Hatch and why is he responsible for so many athletes - amateurs and professionals - getting sent to the naughty step?
MJ: Orrin Hatch is a seven term US Senator from Utah, a state that is also the heartland of the United States' multi-billion dollar nutritional supplement industry. Hatch is a staunch defender of supplement makers' right to market and sell products free from the heavy hand of government regulation. In return, the industry has long rewarded the Mormon Senator with millions of dollars in election funds - $1.1 million for his 2012 election efforts alone.
Hatch's religion matters to this story. In Spitting in the Soup, I cover how Mormons' traditional, and scripturally-endorsed fondness for herbal medicine provided the theological foundations for an industry rotten with snake oil scams and multi-level marketing pyramid schemes. And because there is little scientific evidence that nutritional supplements make you healthier, let alone faster or stronger, the industry often laces products with more potent juju like steroids - that way customers get results and come back for more.
Thanks to piece of Hatch-sponsored legislation passed in 1994 called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), the Food and Drug Administration was barred from looking into the purity and efficacy of supplements only until they had harmed or killed Americans. In the name of both protecting the supplement industry from job-eliminating government oversight and the American consumer's right to treat their own health needs, Hatch gave the supplement industry carte blanche to stuff their capsules and powders with whatever they wanted.
Even after contaminated batches of the supplement L-tryptophan killed 36 and hospitalized 1,531, Hatch argued before the House of Representatives in 1993 that it was time to stop "treating the American consumers like we are a bunch of idiots." Arguing against proposals to clamp down on the nutritional supplement industry he claimed: "We are not a bunch of idiots. We can make consumer choices and we know what we are doing." He also defended the industry's willingness to self regulate the purity of its products - many packaged in China, a country even more laissez faire than the USA about regulating its elixir makers. Congress and President Clinton agreed and DSHEA became law in 1994; today the global supplement industry does some $37 billion in business doing little more than making expensive urine, and in the case of competitive athletes, dramatically increasing their odds of running afoul of anti-doping regulations.
In 2015 a New York state investigation found that five out of six supplements bought at retailers including Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and GNC did not contain the ingredients listed on their labels. A 2001 IOC-funded study by University of Cologne researchers found that of 634 supplements randomly purchased in North America, Europe, and Australia, 14.8 percent contained steroids. With many supplements contaminated, athletes foolish enough to take them are playing Russian roulette with dope tests.
In advance of the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Olympics, the IOC called out Hatch and supplement makers for endangering athlete health. At a 2000 IOC meeting, IOC medical commissioner Alexandre de Mérode stated that Hatch was "directly implicated" in the disqualification of Olympic athletes caught with contaminated supplements in their system. At the same conference, WADA president Dick Pound pointed out "there are tons of prohibited drugs" in the supplements Hatch was so carefully protecting from oversight.
With the Olympics coming to his home state in 2002, and with supplement maker Nu Skin contributing $20 million to the Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee, this European meddling in American sporting and money-making affairs infuriated Hatch. "I'm offended by these jerks," he told a Salt Lake City newspaper in 2000. "The IOC does not have the privilege of making US food and drug law."
And so, even though both the IOC and WADA had concluded in 2000 that taking nutritional supplements was a really bad moral and physical choice for Olympians, the Salt Lake City organizing committee cashed the checks from its supplement-making (and as you'll find in the book, scandal-enslimed) sponsor Nu Skin and freshened up a dirty industry with a cleansing shower of Olympic youth, spirit, and aspiration.
Hatch knows what his voters want. The supplement industry employs thousands of people in Utah and contributes millions to his state's economy; to him, taking it down makes little economic or moral sense. And as a Republican he has a deep suspicion of taxpayer-funded, intrusive government policies wed to an abiding belief that corporations will do the right thing. When athletes take supplements, they should keep in mind Hatch's testimony from a 1993 legislative hearing on DSHEA where he argued that supplement makers should be trusted with the "primary responsibility to self-regulate and to assure the public of the integrity of their products."
Competitive athletes are also charged with regulating what goes into their bodies and assuring others of the integrity of their performances. When they take supplements, they outsource that responsibility to a self-regulating industry with a long, well documented tradition of selling contaminated and erroneously labelled products. Given this history, when I learn of athletes getting busted for taking contaminated supplements, I don't feel for them. Athletes are responsible for what ends up in their bloodstream. Thanks in no small part to Hatch's well compensated efforts to protect the supplement industry from oversight and to protect the American's right to self medication, any athlete who uses these products is committing dope test suicide.
PdC: Final question. You've just had a game-changing election in the United States. Let's consider doomsday scenarios here. You have Russia, which we now know had a state sponsored doping programme, so let's say there's some reason to worry about what pressure Vladimir Putin could exert on future anti-doping policy. You have other governments around the world spending large amounts of money to buy international prestige through sport, both through hosting mega-events and through manufacturing athletes to bring home the bangles and the baubles: some of these governments, shall we say, have questionable ethics. And now, in America, you have a president-elect who has come out in support of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in that wonderfully named 'deflategate' saga, a president-elect who - for want of a nicer way to put this - does seem to believe that Machiavelli was right and the end justifies the means, a president-elect who looks like he could be soft on doping. Do you think the people who care about anti-doping should be worried?
MJ: Historically, state sponsored doping and dope-test-evasion programs are most robust in nations run by autocrats. East Germany was the Cold War poster child for doping in the interest of the glorification of the state. The state-mandated Russian doping at the Sochi and Rio Olympics show that this tradition continues under strongman Putin.
While we don't yet know if Donald Trump wants to use American athletes to make America great again, the US Olympic Committee would be foolish to ignore the historical record when it comes to tyrants, doping, and the Olympic Games. Over and over again, authoritarian demagogues have pushed drug-fuelled athletes into the Olympic arena to inflate their nation's sense of self worth and global prominence. As I explore in the book, historically anti-doping strictures don't stand a chance against these sorts of imperious leaders - and Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration for dictators with no patience for the tediousness of democracy and the raft of quaint civil protocols and rights that go with it.
Trump's election should put the USOC on alert. He has repeatedly shown that he is indifferent to many of the cultural, social, and economic norms binding civil society. From unapologetically vulgar treatment of women to stiffing vendors to rallying (and employing) white nationalists to threatening to jail his opponent, Trump's actions suggest that his personal and financial ends justify ethically suspect means. And the fact that some 46 percent of American voters backed him makes it clear that a good chunk of the nation supports Trump's brand of protocol-dismissing leadership. He was elected to smash things up; Americans expect him to unapologetically deliver.
While we don't know if Trump cares about Olympic sport, he did once sponsor a major professional cycling stage race, and he has repeatedly stated his fondness for Putin, a man whose government organized a massive Olympic doping program. If Trump were to see Olympic victory as an avenue for securing his personal, political, and economic goals - or if another nation mocked Trump and his Olympic team with a well-crafted Twitter insult - USOC executives might expect a call or barbed Tweet from the White House. It's not a stretch to imagine that the thin-skinned American president, equipped with a fluid disregard for right and wrong and backed by a national mandate that orthodox boundaries are for losers, might pressure Olympic teams to discard their commitment to clean sport in the interest of avenging a personal aggrievement or securing patriotic greatness.
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Mark Johnson is the author of Argyle Armada - Behind the Scenes of Pro Cycling Life, published by VeloPress (2012, 200 pages) and Spitting in the Soup - Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sport, also published by VeloPress (2016, 408 pages).
You can find him on Twitter, @IronStringMark.
Our thanks to Mark Johnson for taking part in this interview.