Since I live in the Bay Area, it has been impossible to escape the daily local news coverage dealing with the Barry Bonds perjury trial taking place in San Francisco. He has been accused of lying to a grand jury in 2003 about whether he knowingly used steroids. Although Bonds is suspected of having taken steroids, he certainly wouldn’t be the first athlete to use performance enhancing drugs in hopes of becoming a champion.
Doping in sports has a long history. The term “doping” has been suggested to originate from many different places. In Southern Africa during the 18th century, an alcoholic drink known as “dop” was used as a stimulant in ceremonial dances. A thick dipping sauce the Dutch called “doop” came to be known in America as a mixture that caused sedation, hallucinations, and confusion. During the late 1800’s and into 1900, the word “dope” was referred as a narcotic drug that could also be used on racehorses to influence their performance.
Throughout antiquity, men have searched for ways to help their bodies work harder and last longer. During the 19th century, Doctor Albert Schweitzer observed that the people of Gabon (on the western coast of Central Africa) would eat certain leaves or roots that would help them work contentedly and vigorously all day without feeling tired, hungry, and thirsty.
Athletes have always found ways to enhance their stamina and performance. During an endurance walking race in Britain, one of the participants named Abraham Wood stated in 1807 that he had used opium to keep himself awake for 24 hours while competing. These kinds of endurance sports, such as walking races that stretched over 500 miles, became such popular spectator sports, that promoters were eager to exploit them. Similar events were then held for cyclists with six-day races which soon spread across the Atlantic. With monetary prizes increasing as more crowds paid to watch, cyclists were more motivated to stay awake longer to cover greater distances. This opened the door for all kinds of treatments and drugs to be given to these athletes to enhance performance. But instead of helping the rider, the drugs made them suffer hallucinations. It made them become temporarily insane during the contest. Cocaine was even used in some of these concoctions in hopes that a rider who got tired by a six-day race would be able to get their second wind.
During the 1904 Summer Olympics the use of strychnine was thought necessary to survive demanding races. Even doctors at the time pointed out how useful the use of these drugs was to athletes in long-distance races. Thomas J. Hicks, who won the Olympic marathon in 1904, was given an injection of strychnine and a glass of brandy during the race. Although his health eventually recovered, during the competition he was described as being “between life and death.”
An amphetamine known as Benzedrine made its first appearance during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Its street name was “speed.” This amphetamine caused a deficiency in judgment and heightened risk-taking tendencies thought to be beneficial in sports. Although anabolic steroids were first identified and synthesized in the 1930’s, its use in sports didn’t begin until 1954. The Russians used it on their weightlifters who obtained impressive results with more weight gain and strength. Soon steroid use would become prevalent in Olympic athletes, football players, bodybuilders, and athletes from other sports as well.
The most blatant use of doping athletes, mostly against their will, was during the 1970’s in East Germany. Before German reunification, the state secret police known as the Stasi, supervised the systematic doping of East German athletes. At the time doping existed in other countries, but in East Germany, it was a state policy. Athletes as young as ten years old were given hormones without regard to the negative effects it would have on their developing bodies. Trainers and coaches often lied telling the athletes that the performance enhancing pills were only vitamins. Thousands of former athletes have had to live with the physical and mental scars from years of drug abuse forced on them by the state who believed that every gold medal was an ideological victory.
Doping has been admittedly prevalent in all sports. Some have claimed that since the prevention of doping is impossible, perhaps it should be legalized. Even though the fight against drugs in sports is ongoing and the use of anabolic steroids is banned by all major sporting organizations, athletes will continue to look for ways to get that competitive edge. To some athletes, risking their health and reputation is the price they are willing to pay for winning.