Skip to main content

Drugs in Sports: A History of Doping

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A Long History of Performance-Enhancing Drugs

In the 19th century, long distance walking races (up to 800 km) were popular. One of the top contestants, Abraham Wood, said in 1807 that he used opium to help him keep going for up to 24 hours at a stretch.

By the 1930s, professional cyclists were using a mixture of illegal drugs they called “pot belge.” It’s a cocktail of heroin, caffeine, amphetamines, cocaine, and morphine. Sometimes, the brew is called “insane person mix.” Perhaps because it might drive users mad or perhaps because a person would have to be crazy to take it. Cycling News reported that 23 people were caught up in a pot belge doping ring in France in 2004.

In February 2003, baseball pitcher David Wells told Sports Illustrated that, “As of right now, I’d estimate 25 to 40 percent of all major leaguers are juiced [taking steroids]. But that number’s fast rising.” Baseball slugger Jose Canseco, in his 2005 book Juiced, upped the ante by saying that 80 percent of professional players use steroids.

Drug Use at the Olympic Games

The entire Russian track and field team was banned from the Rio Olympics, throwing into question any previous victories its members might have racked up. But, there’s nothing new about cheating at the Olympics.

Olympians in Ancient Greece used extracts of mushrooms and plant seeds to boost their performances. Later, raw eggs and sheep’s testicles, among other potions, were believed to deliver faster, higher, and stronger performances.

Thomas Hicks won the marathon at the St. Louis Olympics in 1904. His trainers dosed him up with brandy and strychnine, and he collapsed and almost died after crossing the finishing line. This is the first known case of doping in the modern Olympics, but as there were no rules against it, Hicks kept his gold medal.

Hicks gets help from spectators during his winning marathon run.

Hicks gets help from spectators during his winning marathon run.

Drug Use at the Olympics in Modern Times

By the 1960s, rumours were circulating about drug use among Olympic athletes, so the International Olympic Committee issued a list of banned substances. A Swedish pentathlete, Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, has the distinction of being the first Olympian to test positive for drugs—in his case it was alcohol—and lose his bronze medal.

At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, swimmers from East Germany won 11 of the 13 events in the pool. In the 1990s, their coaches admitted they had pumped their athletes full of steroids. The East German swimmers’ cheating wasn’t discovered at the time, but eight weightlifters were found to have bulked up on steroids.

Since then, at most Olympic gatherings, athletes have been caught juicing themselves up with ephedrine, methamphetamine, testosterone, and an alphabet soup of other substances.

By the Athens Olympics of 2004, the haul of cheaters was 27, again with a lot of weightlifters on the list. Another 23 were caught at the London Olympics of 2012.

The Dangers of Drug Use in Sports

Athletes take these performance-enhancing drugs to get a winning edge. This often leads to more fame and money, often quite staggeringly large amounts of the latter.

But, in the long term, there can be a downside; a very severe downside in the case of Michel Zanoli. The Dutch cyclist died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of 35, “brought on by systemic EPO (blood doping) abuse” according to The Australian newspaper.

Many other professional cyclists, 17 in the 1992–93 season alone, also paid the price Zanoli did for using science to get an advantage on competitors.

The Case of Lyle Alzado

Deaths relating to performance-enhancing drugs have occurred in other sports too. Lyle Alzado was a top-flight defensive end in the National Football League. In 1991, he told Sports Illustrated, “I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969 (when he was 20) and never stopped.” In three years of college, he went from 195 lbs (88kg) to 300 lbs (136kg).

That’s what steroids do. Taken along with weight training and vigorous exercise, they pack on muscle rapidly. And muscle is a highly valued commodity in professional football and other sports.

"All the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better," Alzado said. “Now look at me. My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support.” Alzado’s problems were caused by brain cancer that he was convinced was triggered by his steroid use. The disease killed him at the age of 43 in May 1993.

Alzado, of course, was not alone. In 2009, almost one in ten retired NFL players admitted to using steroids. The confidential poll of more than 2,500 former players was carried out by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina.

Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, always claiming he rode clean until he admitted he was doping.

Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, always claiming he rode clean until he admitted he was doping.

The Growing Incentives for Doping

With early death being a possible side effect, it’s a wonder anybody would take performance-enhancing chemicals. But, the urge to win is so powerful, there are plenty who will ignore the risks and hope for the glory and a free pass to old age.

In an article in Scientific American, Michael Shermer writes that, “it is rational for professional cyclists to dope: the drugs are extremely effective as well as difficult or impossible to detect; the payoffs for success are high; and as more riders use them, a ‘clean’ rider may become so non-competitive that he or she risks being cut from the team.”

Shermer goes on to note that the same incentive to take drugs exists in almost every sport.

A major league baseball player may extend his career by two or three years through bulking up muscle with steroids. As the average salary for a major leaguer in 2021 was $4.2 million—plus they still get $100 a day meal allowance—it’s easy to understand the incentive to hang in there a few more years.

Drug Testing Plays Catch-Up

The dopers are always one step ahead of the testers. By the time the authorities got a handle on steroids, use many athletes had moved on to blood doping. In the early days (the 1970s), this was done by taking blood from a competitor, letting the body replace it, and then sticking it back in before the event. More blood in the athlete’s body meant higher oxygen levels and better performances.

Then, a substance called erythropoietin (EPO) started to be used to bulk up oxygen levels in the blood. There was no test to uncover that until the Sydney Olympics of 2000.

By 2003, a stimulant called modafinil was being used. It wasn’t until that year that a test to detect it was developed and the drug was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances. It joined the 150 or so other substances on the list.

Undoubtedly, new drugs and cheating methods have come onto the scene that have not yet been detected. Also, with the best will in the world, the anti-doping agencies can’t catch everybody who’s taking a shortcut to victory. This analysis is confirmed by science writer Matthew Herper in Forbes Magazine: “Our ability to detect these substances and prevent athletes from using them is pretty bad.”

Why Not Allow Drugs in Sports?

Oxford University ethics professor Julian Savulescu has written (British Journal of Sports Medicine) that the gap between rewards for athletic success and the consequences of getting caught cheating is so great that taking performance enhancing drugs “is irresistible to athletes.”

Kjetil K. Haugen of Norway’s Molde University College says (Journal of Sports Economics) athletes face a version of the prisoner’s dilemma. His studies predict that because the odds of being unmasked as a cheater are so small almost all athletes will take the chemical route to first place.

Professor Savulescu has suggested another approach to banning and testing. In an interview in August 2007 with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he said: "One way of dealing with the problems . . . is to change the rules so not all drugs are illegal, so those taking legal drugs would no longer be cheating. This is what we did with caffeine.”

The Case for Legalizing Doping

Some go further. In November 2011, former tennis star Yannick Noah was quoted by Reuters News Agency as saying: “Let’s stop the hypocrisy. The best attitude to adopt is to accept doping. Then everyone will have the magic potion.”

Matthew Herper agrees. He says performance-enhancing drugs should be legalized: “Biological improvement would be treated much as athletic equipment like baseball bats and running shoes. This could improve both athlete’s performance and their health, and would be a lot better than having everybody trying whatever additive they can sneak.”

These views are very much in the minority. Most people associated with sports, both amateur and professional, accept that the drug menace will continue and efforts to combat it will keep limping along behind.

Bonus Factoids

  • The 100-metre race is always the premier event of the Summer Olympics. In 1988, the gathering was in Seoul, South Korea and featured the much-hyped contest between sprinters Ben Johnson of Canada and Carl Lewis of the United States. The two men didn’t like each other, with Lewis accusing Johnson of using drugs to improve his performance and portraying himself as Mr. Clean.
  • On the big day, Ben Johnson won easily in a world record time of 9.79 seconds with Lewis coming second. Three days later, Johnson’s urine sample was found to contain a banned steroid; he was stripped of his gold medal and the race was awarded to Lewis.
  • But in 2003, it was revealed that Lewis too was running on chemicals. He had tested positive for steroid use three times during U.S. Olympic trials. The results were covered up by American team officials so that Lewis could compete in Seoul.
  • Olympic officials did not take Lewis’s medal away, but if they had, it should have gone to third-place finisher Linford Christie of Britain. Well, no. He too failed a drug test in Seoul but argued successfully that the problem was caused by drinking ginseng tea. However, in 1999 he tested positive for steroids.
  • Fourth place runner Calvin Smith of the U.S., who had no history of drug use, seems to have the strongest claim to the gold medal. Only one other sprinter of the eight in that race had no failed drug tests.


  • “A Brief History of Anti-Doping.” World Anti-Doping Agency, June 2010.
  • “Jalbert Caught up in ‘Cahors Affair’ Trial.” Hedwig Krӧner, Cycling News, April 20, 2009.
  • “The Case for Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sport.” Matthew Herper, Forbes, May 20, 2011.
  • “The Performance-Enhancing Drug Game.” Kjetil K. Haugen, Journal of Sports Economics, June 1, 2008.
  • “Why We Should Allow Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sport.” Julian Savulescu et al, British Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 38, Issue 6.
  • “Legalise Drugs in Sports, Ethicist Says.” Eleanor Hall, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, August 6, 2007.
  • “Yannick Noah Slammed over Call to Legalize Drugs in Sport.”Reuters, November 19, 2011.
  • “I’m Sick and I’m Scared.” Lyle Alzado, Sports Illustrated, July 8, 1991.
  • “The Doping Dilemma.” Michael Shermer, Scientific American, April 1, 2008.
  • “1 in 10 Ex-NFL Players Used Steroids, Poll Reports.” Steven Reinberg,, February 20, 2009.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor