Nigel Aplin on drugs in sports

Drugs in Sports: A Brief History

'Russian weight lifter tore both his arms off at the shoulder'

By Nigel Aplin
Sports Editor
True North Perspective

I have three lasting memories from the 1976 Montreal Olympics: the multiple perfect ten scores of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, Canada’s Greg Joy winning a silver medal in the high jump and the domination of the East German women’s swimming team. I can’t recall if any of the television commentators questioned how the East German women were able to shatter long standing world records in the pool that summer 40 years ago but I do remember thinking that many of them looked more like men in their swimsuits than like any woman I had ever seen. Nadia Comaneci, on the other hand, who is less than a year older than I am and was only 14 in 1976, looked pretty, petite, coordinated, and graceful.

We know now, of course, that the GDR was systematically doping their athletes under what was known as State Plan 14.25. It represented a clear politicization of sport against the backdrop of the cold war – a policy which would continue until 1989. The only thing that the East Germans had done differently from other athletes was to institutionalize the practice of boosting athletic performance through drugs. PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) have been and continue to be part of high level sports around the world.

A little closer to home, the relationship between PEDs and professional football has a long history. Former NFL defensive lineman Lyle Alzado became one of the first players to admit to taking anabolic steroids. Alzado claimed, before his death in 1992 at the age of 43, that 90% of players were taking PEDs. He blamed his health problems, including a brain tumour which caused his death, on steroid use.

The NFL began a PED testing program in 1987 and, over the last 30 years, 54 players have been suspended for positive tests. The tests are purported to be random but with more than 1,700 players on active NFL rosters at any given time and with an average career length of less than four years (according to the NFL Players Association), the testing program seems less than rigourous if Alzado’s claim that 90% of players are juiced was or remains anywhere near accurate.

Major League Baseball (MLB) has had its own PED crisis that peaked in the 1990s and 2000s with many of baseball’s biggest stars implicated in boosting their statistics through the use of PEDs. MLB now has a testing program which carries tough penalties starting with an 80-game suspension for a first offence and 162 games (an entire regular season) for a second positive test. A Toronto Blue Jays player, Chris Colabello, tested positive this spring and is currently serving an 80 game suspension.

Even closer to home was the Ben Johnson disqualification from the Seoul Olympics in 1988 after a positive test for steroids. Johnson thrilled track fans in Canada and around the world with his 100 metre victory in 9.79 seconds on that October evening but the disgrace associated his being stripped of his gold medal led to a federal Commission into drugs in sports headed by Justice Charles Dubin. The Dubin Inquiry heard that Canadian track coaches provided their athletes with PEDs in order to keep up with other top track athletes around the world who were doing the same thing.

Then there’s the Tour de France – perhaps the most glaring example of PED use where riders in the gruelling month-long cycling event have sought advantage through PEDs, blood doping, amphetamines, ether and even alcohol for more than 100 years. The list of recent Tour “winners” who have been disqualified for positive drug tests is long and includes Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis and, most famously, American rider Lance Armstrong who vehemently denied taking PEDs for many years before finally admitting that the long-standing allegations against him were true. He and the others were all stripped of all of their Tour titles.

Fast forward to 2016 and the PED issue in sports has hit the front pages once again with the recent ban of Russian track athletes from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero which begin next month. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned Russia from track and field competition last year after it determined that a culture of PED-related cheating existed within the national track and field team management and coaching staff. The culture of cheating has not been eradicated, says the IAAF, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) concur. Russian track athletes are barred from competition with a few possible exceptions based on rigourous individual testing.

It almost seems that there’s a pattern of drug cheating in sport, doesn’t it?  Like drivers who acquire devices to detect speed radar (“fuzz-busters”) and the police who then try to identify those drivers with fuzz-busters, the cycle of drug cheating, testing and evasion in sports resembles a cat-and-mouse game with the end result being that PEDs continue to be used extensively in sports, even if some of the cheaters are caught sometimes. The rewards of victory - be they financial, political or personal - are simply too great to keep cheaters away and the systems used to police drug use are too often a step behind.

Perhaps the Saturday Night Live skit from the late 1980s had it right with the All Drug Olympics.  A Russian weightlifter is introduced as having taken anabolic steroids, Novocain, Nyquil, Darvon and “some sort of fish paralyzer”. He was also said to have consumed several cocktails within the hour before the competition. He then tried to lift 1,500 pounds but tore both of his arms off at the shoulder.   

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