Beyond good and evil

Jim Ferstle reviews a definitive history of doping in sport

Paul Dimeo’s look at the history of drug use in sport is an attempt to give an overview and some context into the seemingly runaway doping “train” that has crashed into the sports world.

Though there is evidence that some form of chemical assistance has been utilised by athletes since the inception of sport, the combination of modern technology and the increasing politicalisation and professionalisation of sport has accelerated and increased doping in sport over the past 50 years to the point where the issue now often dominates media coverage of major sports, sporting events, and participants.

The main contribution the book makes is to chronicle doping history from its beginnings in scientific experimentation that was unhindered by the current moral and ethical arguments to the current status, where sports doping is denounced as a threat to athletes’ health and contrary to the values and moral code that sport is supposed to represent.

Dimeo, a lecturer in Sports Studies at the University of Stirling, presents evidence that the spread of doping had its roots in the seemingly innocent scientific inquiry into ways to perfect the “ideal” of the elite sportsman. The development of the exercise sciences led to investigation of how various substances, nutrition, and training practices fit together to produce top level elite athletes, he notes.

The use of a potentially performance enhancing substance, amphetamines, Dimeo writes, was not initially denounced by all as a corrupt practice. In fact, many sportsmen, especially those in cycling, saw the stimulants as an essential tool to battle the fatigue and endurance challenge their events presented. The book is particularly astute in pointing out the development of the doping culture in cycling, how it was condoned, accepted and even encouraged at first, only to be condemned and attacked in the current day frequent doping scandals that have enveloped the sport.

The Second World War and military investigations into substances that would help the troops strengthened the link of better performance through better pharmacy, with experiments on the efficacy of testosterone use.

Then came the Cold War where the attention of scientists was not directed to the battle field, but rather to the sports arena where the Eastern Bloc countries and the West fought for dominance on the Olympic stage. The irony in what transpired being that the essentially pacifist Olympic movement became the de facto battlefield between nations in a “war” between political and social philosophies.

It was another factor, however, that began to heighten the debate about doping in sports, the death of athletes that was attributed to use of performance enhancing drugs. While, prior to this, there had been increasing concern about the use of performance enhancing chemicals, the moral and ethical issues were muted. Deaths, however, altered that debate and set the tone for the current rhetoric that is used by the anti-doping movement to denounce the use of chemical aids by athletes. This presentation of the context and development of the debate over drug use by athletes is the strength of the book.

The weakness is some factual and editing mistakes. The American Olympic hammer champion Harold Connolly, for example, is referred to as a shot putter on first mention, then correctly as a hammer thrower. Also, the German scientist Werner Franke, who played an important role in uncovering the secrets of the East German doping programme, is named in the book as Franke Werner, a transposition and editing error that detracts from the scholarship of the book.

More substantial though is the Eurocentric nature of the examination of doping, and also the attention paid to the contributions of UK scientists. While there were significant contributions played by those such as Raymond Brooks, Arnold Beckett, and others in the development of early testing procedures, Dimeo seems not to recognise the role of others, such as Manfred Donike of Germany, who was perhaps the most influential of the forensic scientists in developing the array of tests for anabolic steroids and testosterone.

While there is one fleeting reference to the work of Donike’s Cologne lab, there is no mention of Prof Donike, nor his important role in the science and the politics of the anti-doping movement. Granted, Donike became a dominant force in the 1970s and 80s, somewhat beyond the 1976 closing date for the examination in this book, but he was already a key player by 1976 and the lack of acknowledgement of his role is glaring.

On the plus side, Dimeo does note a familiar pattern in the development of doping tests. He documents how the early testing for anabolic steroids was a two-step process, just like current testing for recombinant erythropoietin (rHuEPO) began. This is an important detail because it documents one of the issues in the testing process – the complexity and time consuming process of developing and implementing a test for banned drugs. It is a subtle example of the chasm between suspecting that an athlete is using something and being able to develop and implement a test that confirms its use both scientifically and legally.

While Dimeo’s book is written for an academic audience, it is not burdened, for the most part, by the weighty prose of academic discourse. This may account for some of the errors mentioned, as the chronology is based on review of documents and not interviews with those cited. It’s accessible for non-academics as well as meeting the standard for such literature.

It’s a valuable addition to the library of books on the topic, and, hopefully, Dimeo may take up where he left off in this volume and cover the history form 1976 to present day. If he does so, two suggestions: one, go beyond the libraries and go to the laboratories and sports administrators; and two, expand the scope of the inquiry beyond Europe to the US, Australia, and China where a more robust and complete view of the development of doping in sport can be found. Plenty happened in Europe, but doping is a world wide issue that has its roots in every continent and every country.

A History of Drug Use in Sport: 1876-1976: Beyond Good and Evil by Paul Dimeo, (£23.99 in paperback; £80 hardback) is available to order via Amazon by clicking here

Jim Ferstle is a freelance sportswriter who has spent 20 years covering doping matters from his base in St Paul, Minnesota. His previous contribution for this website can be found by clicking here

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