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Tox Tuesday: a history of Olympic doping

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen | Wikimedia Commons

Tetrahydrogestrinone. Androstenedione. Methylhexanamine. Erythropoietin. Hydrochlorothiazide. These are just some of the performance-enhancing substances athletes use here in the 21st century, and just some of what officials will test for during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. However, just because these drugs are modern inventions doesn’t mean that doping in sports is new.

Way back when

Ancient Olympic athletes (who competed anywhere during the Games’ 776 BC–393 AD lifespan) would give themselves a competitive edge with alcohol, meat from exotic animals, wine potions, opium-derived juices, hallucinogenic plants and even raw animal hearts and testicles.

After a hiatus of many centuries, the Olympic Games we enjoy today kicked off in 1896 in Athens, Greece. Although modern medicine had come a long way by this point, anyone today could tell you that the performance-enhancing substances used in these early games were often downright dangerous.

Take for example American runner Thomas Hicks, who won gold in the 1904 Summer Games while taking an unappetizing combination of whiskey, raw egg whites and a chemical called strychnine. At the time, the latter was considered a healthful “tonic,” but today we use it as a pesticide. Invigorating!

Athletes during this time also used coca leaves, cocaine and other types of alcohol to boost performance. During the 1930s, amphetamines and synthetic testosterone became popular. For most of this time, few regulations existed against this type of cheating.

Taking doping seriously

It was hard to test for doping for much of the 20th century because the technology just wasn’t advanced enough yet. This made it hard to regulate performance-enhancing substances in competing athletes.

But the 1960 death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen during an Olympic race brought new attention to the matter. Jensen was believed to have died with the amphetamine/stimulant Ronicol in his system. Ronicol and another drug, Dianobol, were commonly seen in dopers in the ‘60s.

The death and the debate surrounding it prompted the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to establish a list of prohibited substances in 1967. The 1968 Games in Mexico were the first to implement drug testing for a number of steroids, though still many drugs remained undetectable by tests.

In 1974, a test for anabolic steroids, which help build muscle mass, was developed. This was huge — the test made it possible to enforce a ban on the substances, which ended up disqualifying many athletes and led to a drop in the top records in a few sports, according to Premed Magazine.

Concerns about doping continued to grow over the years. In 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established. WADA advocates against not just anabolic steroids, but also testable drugs such as stimulants (which impact the central nervous system), and diuretics (which can mask other drugs in tests, and cause rapid weight loss).

The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia brought the biggest doping scandal in Olympics history, though we didn’t know about it until whistleblowers spoke up two years after the fact. An IOC investigation found that a team organized by Russia’s sports ministry tampered with more than 100 urine samples to hide evidence of athlete steroid use, the New York Times reports.

As a result, Russia has been officially banned from participating in the 2018 Winter Games, though Russian athletes who pass drug screening have been invited to compete under a neutral flag.

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