Doping In Sport: The Needle In The Back

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Doping has once again come back into the public eye after a rather eventful year with the uncovering of a state run doping scheme for Russian athletes. But doping wasn’t always frowned upon, until quite recently it was accepted and even encouraged.

Taking substances to improve sporting performances can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Olympics in Greece but it really came into the picture in the late 19th century. Events were held where cyclists would ride for six days straight, all on drugs, where the main selling point was the fact that the drugs were allowing them to overexert themselves far more than if they were clean. This form of doping was also employed at the 1904 Olympics where it was hailed as a benefit with the official race report stating, “The marathon has shown from a medical point of view how drugs can be very useful to athletes in long-distance races.” There were several instances of people dying or being permanently damaged from these events but no real effort was made to regulate the taking of any substances. Around this time, a man named Bob Goldman asked a wide range of athletes if they would take a drug if it would guarantee them a victory in an event but it also meant they would die 5 years later. Over half of the athletes asked said they would take the drug.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, as sporting successes became a political statement, East Germany enforced a state run doping operation to increase their haul of golds at the Olympics. It certainly worked in 1968 they won 9 golds, in 1972 they had 20 and in 1976 they won 40 golds. Reports of athletes who fled to West Germany during this time said they were being given “vitamins” and had no idea they were drugs. Renate Neufeld was one of these athletes and realised what was going on when the pills she was given gave her stomach cramps, stopped her periods and she started growing a moustache. Although almost none of the athletes officially failed their drugs test, in 1992 reports were found showing this was due to a state wide cover up of the matter.

Doping perhaps reached its peak at the 1988 Olympic 100 metre final, now known as the dirtiest race in history. The winner of the race, Ben Johnson, who also set a world record time of 9.79 seconds, was almost immediately disqualified due to failing a drugs test after the final. Only 2 of the 8 finalists have not been convicted of doping at some point in their career.

Possibly the most notable drug scandal ever is that of Lance Armstrong. Armstrong become the most successful road cyclist, winning a record breaking 7 Tour De France titles between 1998 and 2005. He had to fight against cancer throughout his career and was plagued by doping accusations. Although there was no hard evidence against him, his teammates were caught which strengthened the case against himself. In 2012 he had his titles revoked and in 2013 he confessed to doping, which was generally considered a stab in the back as many, myself included, wanted to believe he was clean.

Ultimately, the drugs that are out there have always and will always be ahead of the methods to catch athletes and so it seems inevitable that doping scandals are going to become a sad reality of the sporting world. It’s not if there will be another needle in the back, it’s when.

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