Breakfast of Champions

Chemical warfare on the track, field, ice et al

Andre McNicoll September 19 1977

Breakfast of Champions

Chemical warfare on the track, field, ice et al

Andre McNicoll September 19 1977

Breakfast of Champions


Chemical warfare on the track, field, ice et al

Andre McNicoll

The chemical manipulation of both animals and humans for the purpose of improving their performance has a long, and largely dishonorable, history. One student of the subject claims that performance-increasing substances (ergogenics) were first used by the legendary “Berserkers” who, according to Nordic mythology, increased their fighting strength twelvefold by eating amanita muscaria, a type of psychoactive mushroom. With a similar objective in mind, ancient Greeks ate sesame seeds for greater endurance during foot races. The Romans gave hydromel, a mixture of water and honey, to horses in cart races.

We have come a long way since the “Berserkers,” sesame seeds and hydromel. Today, coaches and trainers in both amateur and professional sports offer athletes an astounding variety of sophisticated chemicals manufactured by the most reputable pharmaceutical firms. Most of these are “speed” drugs—amphetamines—that mask fatigue and produce a euphoric feeling by speeding up cardiovascular activity. Unfortunately, they are dangerous to health and can give rise to erratic and violent behavior.

Cycling, of all the amateur sports, has a particularly appalling history of drug misuse. In 1960, at the Rome Olympics, Danish cyclist Knud Jensen, following a brutal 100-kilometre road race held on a very hot day, fell exhausted and subsequently died. It was later discovered that Jensen had taken nicotinoyl alcohol by injection hoping to improve blood circulation in the legs. In 1967, British cyclist Tom Simpson, who had long and loudly defended drugs, died in a grueling race. He was heavily drugged with amphetamines. On October 24, 1968, in Grenoble, France, Jean-Louis Quadri, 18, a soccer player, collapsed on the field and was dead on arrival at hospital. An autopsy revealed a high level of amphetamines in his bloodstream. On November 3, 1968, also in Grenoble, 23-yearold cyclist Yves Motin was the surprise winner of a regional cross-country bicycle race. Two days later he died; amphetamines were a contributing factor. There have been other scandals in cycling. In the late Sixties, Jacques Anquetil forfeited two major victories—including a world speed record—rather than submit to a urine test. In Italy, at that time, drug use by cyclists was estimated at 100%. Sometimes, of course, doping is used to weaken the opponent. In 1955, Harold Johnson, knocked out in the early rounds of a fight, claimed he had been doped by a poisoned orange. Barbiturates were found in the boxer’s blood and urine. Olympic athletes are told never to drink or eat anything offered by a competitor prior to an event.

In a sport nearer to the hearts of most Canadians—hockey—the use of speed (a much more descriptive term than “stimulant”) has not been well documented, except in one instance. In March 1975, following a long investigation, Francois Beliveau, a sports writer for La Presse, wrote a series of articles detailing speed use by half the players of the Laval Nationals, a Montreal Junior A hockey team. A mediocre team at best during most of the 1973-74 season, the Nationals suddenly started terrorizing their opponents and made it into the play-offs. Only the pow-

erful Quebec Ramparts managed to resist the violent intimidations of the National players—a style of play so bizarre that other sports writers had commented on it a few months before. Beliveau obtained written statements from many players that at least half the team members had taken speed-type drugs at the instigation of their ambitious coach, Claude Laboissière. The players also stated the drugs had been openly supplied by the team doctor, Gilles Paquin. Laboissière categorically denied having given his players amphetamines claiming all he had provided was a “kind of vitamin to make them stronger.” Nonetheless, the violence-fascinated coach was suspended for life—only to be rewarded a little later with an important supervisory]ob at the Montreal Olympic Stadium.

The case of the Laval Nationals was not an isolated one. According to some of Beliveau’s sources, the use of speed by Junior B hockey players is far more widespread than among the higher calibre ones. The story of the Laval Nationals was retold by Beliveau at a special seminar on drugs in sports at the 1975 annual conference of the Canadian Foundation on Alcohol and Drug Dependencies, held in Quebec City.

The foundation did not see fit to pass any resolutions on the matter and the many federal government officials in attendance seemed equally oblivious to the significance of Beliveau’s presentation.

Football, more than hockey, has been the subject of persistent accusations and stories about rampant drug use by players. Joe Vijuk, a former lineman with the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Toronto Argonauts, has sued both teams for allegedly supplying him with ever-increasing amounts of amphetamines. Vijuk claims to have suffered serious health impairment as a result. Robert McKeown, a former offensive centre with the Ottawa Rough

Riders, wrote in the fall 1974 issue of Addictions, the quarterly publication of the Ontario Addiction Research Foundation, that some 25% of all CFL ballplayers make use of amphetamines prior to games.

It is sometimes said that only secondrate players resort to the use of stimulants, but this does not appear to be true. Houston Ridge was a top player for the San Diego Chargers—until he filed suit against them for $1.25 million for the “administration of dangerous drugs.” Ken Gray was another established player with the St. Louis Cardinals—until he filed a $3.5 million suit against them, the team physician and the team trainer, for causing him to take “potent, harmful, illegal and dangerous drugs ... so that he would perform more violently.” Basketball, baseball and virtually all other manner of organized sports have seen recurrent accusations of drug misuse in their midst.

The use of speed type drugs by athletes is condemned by both the American and Canadian Medical Associations. Quite simply because they are dangerous to health, they are addictive and, at best, their effect on performance is dubious. A study by two Harvard physicians, Breecher and Smith, in 1959, had reported improvement in performances by runners, swimmers and shot-putters who had taken amphetamines experimentally. The immediate outcome, predictably, was the widespread use of stimulants by hordes of athletes. Fortunately, more recent investigations using better controls on measurements and timing, have failed to show any improvements.

The International Olympic Committee and many amateur sports associations have drawn up rules controlling doping. These specify all the chemicals prohibited, the tests that will be employed to detect usage, and the penalties that are provided for infraction of the rules. In the case of the Canadian Cycling Association, the penalties range from a three-month suspension for a first offense to a life-suspension for a third offense. There is general agreement that these rigidly enforced rules have worked well.

Anabolic steroids, synthetic male hormones used to help the chronically ill and the elderly build body tissue, are now exceedingly popular among all athletes, especially those eager to gain muscular strength and size. At the Montreal Olympic Games, eight weight lifters were disqualified when testing revealed they had used anabolic steroids. These were Khristov and Blagoev (Bulgaria), Kaczmarek (Poland), Norrback (Sweden), Gripaldi and Cameron (U.S.A.), Paulasek (Czechoslovakia) and Ciorosan (Romania). They all expressed amazement that these obviously harmless “vitamins” should be banned.

The pioneer in the use of these appealing drugs in U.S. sports was Dr. John Ziegler, a physician who treated U.S. Olympic athletes. In 1960, after hearing that the Russians were using hormones to bulk up, he cooperated with CIBA, the giant Swiss pharmaceutical company, and began giving the drug to weight lifters. Ziegler deeply regretted this especially when the lifters started eating the pill like candy and developed worrisome side effects, such as atrophied testes.

As in the case of amphetamines, football players soon became—again under management guidance—enthusiastic consumers of anabolic steroids. Paul Lowe, a former all-pro running back with the San Diego Chargers, testified to a California State Legislative Committee on Drug

Abuse in 1970: “We had to take them [anabolic steroids] at lunch time. He [the trainer] would put them on a little saucer and prescribed for us to take them and if not he would suggest there might be a fine.” Bil Gilbert, in Sports Illustrated, reports that there has been clandestine testing of anabolic steroids on high-school athletes. There have been at least two separate reports on increasing drug misuse among U.S. high-school athletes and one coach in Ohio was fired for giving his players amphetamines. Some of these athletes were 14 and 15.

In a well-designed study in 1965 at the University of California, the use of anabolic steroids was found to be unrelated to any increased strength, motor performance or physical work capacity. The potential side effects of these powerful drugs are

so serious, particularly among young athletes, that one expert calls their use “almost horrendous.” Premature closing of the growing centres of the long bones, testicular atrophy, liver damage and impotence are some side effects.

It’s very difficult to say just how prevalent drug misuse is among athletes. U.S. reports say that 10% of both male and female high-school athletes resort to the use of stimulants. The use of anabolic steroids may be higher in view of its uncritical acceptance by professionals. Among college and professional sports competitors there are no reliable figures, only the estimates of the athletes themselves, such as those of Jim Bouton in his book, Ball Four, who said that 40% of major league ball players used “bennies” (amphetamines) and “greenies” (an appealing mixture of amphetamines and barbiturates). Other pro athletes have detailed their heavy reliance on drugs but only after their highly rewarding careers were behind them.

A research paper by a student at UCLA, who personally interviewed practically every varsity football player there, found that half the team members had or were using amphetamines, and 28% had or were using anabolic steroids. Among weight lifters, shot-putters and others desirous of great muscular strength, anabolic steroids may be used by 80% of them. The matter of drug use by athletes is simply common knowledge.

In Canada, unfortunately, there are no official figures. The Non-Medical Use of Drugs Directorate, the drug arm of the federal government’s Department of Health and Welfare, has no data whatsoever. Out of the hundreds of enquiries that they fund each year, not one has ever even remotely dealt with the use and misuse of drugs by Canadian athletes. The one effort the directorate has come up with was to prepare, on request, a booklet on drugs for the Canadian Football League. The booklet, subsequently dismissed as “awful” by the designer himself, was distributed to all players at the beginning of the 1973 season. Apparently, it has never been redistributed, and since there is almost a 50% turnover of personnel each season not too many players currently in the CFL have been warned, however ineffectively, about drug misuse.

Quite apart from the known and serious injuries to health likely to be suffered by athletes through their abuse of drugs, are the ethical and moral issues. When Bobby Baun, playing with the Leafs, scored the winning goal in a crucial game against Detroit, how many wildly cheering fans paused to consider the implications of the fact that their hero had been given a massive injection of Novocain to hide the excruciating pain of playing with a broken leg. The flagrant overuse of pain-killing drugs is another worrisome aspect of drug abuse in athletics. It is a daily, routine occurrence in the viciously competitive world of pro sports. The concern shown by the public, government, and sports officials, is a deafening silence.

For those who have to work with young addicts—and there’s an increasing number of them in our drug-oriented culture—the use of drugs by athletes is particularly distressing. It has long been recognized that sports is one of the most effective alterna-

tives to intoxication by drugs. The alternative is fading rapidly and it is alarming. While sports organizations have shown little resistance to the introduction of drugs in their midst, they have shown an heroic

capacity to do nothing about it. Professional baseball however has strongly decided against drug use, not so much to protect the players as to reduce the fascination for drugs among the young—according to a remarkably enlightened statement by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Some baseball heroes, such as Elston Howard and Ralph Houk, have endorsed the drug ban and have done much to bring more self-respect to the sport. Football and hockey are lagging behind. It is especially disgraceful for football officials to be complacent since the abuse is almost certainly greatest in that game.

The penetration of drugs in sports is too complete, too systematic to be checked by good intentions alone. For professional athletes, compulsory blood and urine spot checks are required—along with supportive legislation making team management criminally responsible for doping their players. In amateur sports increased vigilance is called for as well as the highest standards by government and other sponsoring bodies. Unless, of course, we are willing to allow athletes to embrace the use of drugs as a perfectly acceptable auxiliary to rigorous training and natural ability. If we do, the price we will pay should come as no surprise—the further degradation of sports as mere entertainment (usually violent) for a mass television audience, itself too preoccupied with its own chemical happiness to care.