Swipe to Navigate
Back to Multimedia
  1. The World Athletics Championships starts on Saturday, August 19, 2023 in Budapest, Hungary. In 1983, the first edition of this track and field tournament was staged in Helsinki, Finland. Except for 1995, 2017 and 2021 tournaments, all others had doping offenses. Unusually, the last two championships have been ostensibly "clean."

    Drugs and Sports

    By Ellis Cashmore

    Either athletes no longer favor performance-enhancing drugs or, much more likely, pharmaceutical scientists have created designer drugs that are not yet detectable. Fair Observer presents an interactive slide show that traces the history of drugs in sports.

  2. Even as far back as the ancient Greeks, the physician Galen (129–199) wrote
    about the use of herbs and potions to enhance athletic performance at the
    Olympics, 776 BC-AD 393. Over 1,600 years later, the effort to gain a
    competitive edge by fair means or foul remains a feature of sports. This
    timeline traces the extraordinary history of what seems to be
    inseparable coupling.

  3. 1904: Deadly Strychnine

    Thomas Hicks, an American marathon runner, wins Olympic gold after being given strychnine and brandy by his trainer during the race. Strychnine made its way to Europe in the 19th century and is widely used as a central nervous system stimulant, tonic and anti-inflammatory agent. Drugs are permitted in sports and remain so for at least another six decades. Medicine is used not only to treat or prevent disease but also to improve athletic performance as public enthusiasm for sports grows. Coca-infused tonics are also popular.

    Some sources suggest a Welsh cyclist named Arthur Linton had died earlier in 1886 after using an unknown substance.

  4. 1945: In War and Peace

    During World War II, an addictive stimulant first synthesized in the 1880s and known as amphetamine is used by the military to combat fatigue and improve fitness. In peacetime, amphetamine becomes known as “pep pills” (and, later, speed) and gains popularity for recreational use. The value of amphetamine as a performance-enhancing supplement in sports is also exploited.

    In 1945, American microbiologist Paul de Kruiff (1890–1971) publishes The Male Hormone, relaying research into the impact of testosterone on the endurance of men involved in muscular work. This alerts some sports coaches to the potential of anabolic steroids, a synthetic steroid hormone that resembles testosterone in promoting the growth of muscle. Burn victims and other patients benefit from the medical use of these steroids.

    Dianabol is the name of an anabolic steroid first produced by the CIBA company in 1958. Weightlifters use it. During the 1950s and 1960s, there are no rules forbidding the use of Dianabol or other pharmaceuticals in sports.

  5. 1960: State Program 1425

    The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) begins State Program 1425, which involves inducting about 10,000 young people into sports academies where they are trained, conditioned and supplied with pharmaceuticals intended to improve their athletic performance. The program is responsible for some of the world’s outstanding track achievements, including Marita Koch’s 47.60-second 400-meter record set in 1985 and rarely threatened ever since.

    After the end of the Cold War, a special team of prosecutors sifts through captured files of the Stasi secret police and uncover details of often abusive treatment accorded young athletes. Offenders are later prosecuted.

  6. 1967: Speed Kills

    British cyclist Tommy Simpson collapses during the Tour de France after taking amphetamine. He later dies, prompting many sports to reassess their policies on the use of stimulants to assist athletic performance. An amateur cyclist, Knud Jensen of Denmark, died seven years earlier after taking amphetamine during the Rome Olympics, but Simpson’s death is colossal international news and prompts the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to recognize that some widely used stimulants could be harmful. Simpson is not denounced as a cheat for using drugs.

  7. 1968: Dancer’s Image

    The winner of the Kentucky Derby, the oldest horse race in the US (first run in 1875) is disqualified after analysts found phenylbutazone, an analgesic better known as bute, in a sample of Dancer’s Image’s urine. Giving a horse assorted performance-enhancing drugs (PED) to improve performance and “nobbling” its rivals by giving them dope to impede performance is commonplace. Gambling on horse racing has surged in popularity in the US since 1933 when it became the only federally legal form of sports betting. England’s Jockey Club proscribed the use of stimulants in 1897, but in practical terms regulation of doping is almost impossible and continues in a way that parallels doping in human sports.

    In 2020, an FBI investigation resulted in the indictment of 27 people for participating in a scheme to give PED to racehorses in various parts of the world. As in human sport, money in horse racing increased (the world’s richest race, as of 2023, is now the $20 million Saudi Cup). As the stakes rise, so does the tendency to enhance performance.

  8. 1968: Testing Starts

    In 1968, officials administer the first tests for stimulants at the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, largely for research purposes. There is no test for anabolic steroids: this becomes available in 1974. The IOC, at this point, is faced with the possibility of creating an agency similar to the US government’s FDA (Food and Drug Administration), which is responsible for protecting and promoting public health and regulates food, drugs, vaccines, biologics and cosmetics. The IOC could choose to regulate drug use by monitoring, commissioning research and advising athletes on safety. Instead, it ignores the lessons of history and bans certain substances. Paradoxically, bans always produce the opposite results to those intended, and banning drugs in sports is no exception.

    Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, a Swedish modern pentathlete, is disqualified from the Mexico Olympics for drinking beer to steady his nerves before competing. Alcohol is not considered a stimulant by the IOC, but modern pentathlon’s governing organization prohibits it.

  9. 1972: The First Drugs “Cheat”?

    The IOC begins testing athletes for banned substances at the Summer Olympics in Munich. 16-year-old US swimmer Rick DeMont is disqualified and stripped of his 400-meter freestyle gold medal for using a prohibited substance, ephedrine, which he claims is in medication he takes for asthma. The strict liability rule means responsibility does not depend on negligence or intent. DeMont has the unenviable distinction of being the first Olympian disqualified and stripped of a medal for a doping offense. At this stage, the emphasis of the IOC drugs policy is on athletes’ welfare, not cheating. Violation of fair play becomes prominent in the discourse later—see the entry on 1988.

  10. 1975: Testing for Steroids

    The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, later to become World Athletics) introduces drug testing at its World Championships, including anabolic steroids in its banned substances. In the years that follow, other sports organizations adopt anti-doping measures and the list of prohibited substances is extended. This is a crucial year because, prior to 1975, the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports was not explicitly prohibited or regulated.

  11. 1988: Ben Johnson, the End of Innocence

    Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson is stripped of his Olympic gold medal in the 100m and denied a world record after testing positive for anabolic steroids. This is unquestionably the most sensational drugs-in-sport case to date. Johnson is sent home from Seoul and suspended from competition for two years. It later transpires that only two of the eight finalists in the race go through their athletic careers without some kind of doping breach. An inquiry into the case headed by Charles Dubin concludes there is a conspiracy of silence about doping among athletes, coaches and physicians, suggesting sports’ age of innocence is at an end and that doping is widespread. Major League Baseball bans steroids in 1991—see the entry on 2013.

  12. 1998: The Festina Scandal

    The Festina cycling team is expelled from the Tour de France after police find performance-enhancing drugs, including erythropoietin (EPO), in the team car. Team manager Bruno Roussel and several other team staff members are charged with drug trafficking. Other teams withdraw from the world’s most prestigious cycling race, undermining the credibility of cycling and leading to the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) the following year. It is an international independent agency, part-funded by the IOC. In 2000, Roussel is sentenced to a one-year suspended prison sentence and fined about 50,000 francs ($7,000) and Willy Voet, the physiotherapist, is given a 10-month suspended sentence and fined about 30,000 francs ($4,200).

    Also in 1998, American sprinter Dennis Mitchell tests positive for testosterone and claims that his high hormone levels are due to drinking beer and having sex with his wife the night before the test. The unusual explanation is not accepted.

  13. 2003: Balco

    An informant anonymously sends a syringe with residual amounts of an unknown substance to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in Colorado, naming BALCO as the source. BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative) is a company started in 1984 that attempts to stay one step ahead of drug enforcement agencies by creating new substances that are undetectable and not on banned lists. These are known as designer drugs, produced by modifying the chemical structure of an existing drug and developing a substance with similar properties but which is not yet illegal. Tetrahydrogestrinone is one such drug, and it is found in the syringe. US Federal investigators raid BALCO’s California lab and seize financial and medical records that implicate baseball player Jason Giambi and sprinter Marion Jones, who is later stripped of her Olympic medals and sentenced to six months in prison. Also involved: baseball player Barry Bonds, who is indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007.

  14. 2009: Sealed With a Kiss

    In a rare departure from the “strict liability” rule, French tennis player Richard Gasquet tests positive for cocaine at the Miami Masters and is suspended from the tour, but later cleared of any wrongdoing after an investigation determines the drug entered his system inadvertently while he kissed a woman who had been taking cocaine in a nightclub. He insists he had not used cocaine himself. An independent tribunal accepts his explanation, though the strict liability rule usually dictates that athletes are responsible for whatever is discovered in their bodies and are required to ensure they do not consume banned substances, however inadvertently.

  15. 2012: The Rise and Fall of Lance Armstrong

    The USADA strips Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner, of his titles and bans him from cycling for life for using performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong has faced accusations throughout his cycling career but repeatedly denied doping. He has reputedly passed dozens of doping tests. According to a USADA report based on the testimony of Armstrong's former teammates, Armstrong began using performance-enhancing drugs in the mid-1990s. The USADA report alleges that Armstrong has been involved in a systematic doping program that includes the use of erythropoietin (EPO), blood transfusions and other prohibited substances and methods. In 2013, Armstrong confesses to doping on the Oprah Winfrey TV show, after which he is served with several civil lawsuits for fraud, which are either dismissed or settled (including one settlement of around $10 million). Members of Armstrong’s team are also penalized. He remains the best-known doping transgressor in the history of sports.

  16. 2013: Biogenesis

    Biogenesis of America is a South Florida-based anti-aging clinic that provides anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing substances to Major League Baseball (MLB) players, including Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun. An investigation leads to the indictment of Biogenesis founder Tony Bosch and the suspension of 13 players, including Rodriguez, who is suspended for the entire 2014 season. Bosch ultimately pleads guilty to the charges and cooperates with MLB investigators. Rodriguez confesses to doping in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

  17. 2019: Russian Offenders

    Russia is banned from all major international sports events for four years, later reduced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to two years, after a long-running investigation that started in 2014 following a German television documentary that revealed a state-sponsored program of doping. Two WADA reports in 2015 and 2016 (known as the McLaren report) allege systemic doping in Russia. In 2018, the IOC bans the Russian team from the Winter Olympics in South Korea but permits individual Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag.

    While unassociated with the state-sponsored program, US-based Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova tests positive in 2016 for meldonium, a banned substance, and is suspended from the tour for two years. Sharapova claims that she had been taking the drug for medical reasons and was not aware that it had been added to the list of banned substances.

  18. 2022: Kamila Valieva

    The Court of Arbitration for Sport rules that 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva can compete as a member of the “Russian Olympic Committee” (ROC) at the Beijing Winter Olympics, while appealing a positive drugs test. The ruling is a victory for the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada) against the IOC and WADA. Valieva had tested positive for a banned heart medicine called trimetazidine. In the Olympic event, Valieva finishes fourth. IOC President Thomas Bach criticizes what he calls her “entourage”: “We are dealing with a minor, with a 15-year-old girl who obviously has a drug in her body that should not be in her body. Who has administered this drug in her body?”

  19. 2023: Eric Lira

    Lira becomes the first person to be charged and convicted under what is known as the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA) which allows the US to impose criminal sanctions of up to ten years in federal prison on individuals involved in doping activities at international events. Lira, a naturopathic therapist (naturopathy is a form of alternative medicine based on the idea that diseases can be treated without the use of drugs), pleads guilty to providing banned performance-enhancing drugs to Olympic athletes prior to the 2020 Tokyo Games. The RADA legislation is named after whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, who helped expose the Russian doping scandal (see 2019). It was signed into US law in 2020.

  20. Credits Produced by Lokendra Singh
    Researched and Written by Ellis Cashmore
    Based on Ellis Cashmore’s Making Sense of Sports, which is in its fifth edition