The medical and sporting establishments now had a problem. They had to find some way of keeping athletes from using drugs that scientific research had proven to enhance performance. There was already a significant lack of trust between the sports medicine and athletic communities. Many athletes distrusted doctors’ claims that steroids were potentially dangerous. Many used extremely high dosages for the sake of their career.
Ben Johnson at the 1988 Summer Olympics
For years, athletes and spectators had suspected Eastern European athletes used anabolic steroids. But the 1988 Summer Olympics marked a major turning point in the public’s view of sport. For the first time, spectators had to face the fact that the world’s greatest athletes often used drugs and chemicals to enhance their performances.
The scandal centered around Ben Johnson, a Canadian sprinter who had set a one-hundred-meter world record (9.83 seconds) at the 1987 World Championships in Rome. Johnson became a famous marketing celebrity, earning about $480,000 a month in endorsements. The Associated Press named Johnson “Athlete of the Year” for 1987.
In the 1988 Olympics, Johnson broke the world record (9.79 seconds) again only to have his record erased three days later when he tested positive for stanozolol, a well-known bodybuilder’s steroid. He later admitted that he had also used steroids when he ran his 1987 world record, which caused the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to rescind that record as well. Johnson’s fall represented the biggest drug scandal in Olympic history.
Johnson’s positive test dramatically increased the level of national and international attention focused on anabolic steroid use. A well publicized study in the 1988 Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that as many as half a million American adolescents might be using steroids. This was one of the factors that led the U.S. Congress to pass the Steroid Control Act in 1990.
The sport of cycling has a long history of tacit acceptance of drug use. In 1930, the rule book for the Tour de France even reminded riders that drugs would not be provided by the organizers. Until the 1960s, most people in cycling believed there was nothing wrong with the sensible use of stimulants such as amphetamines. This position changed when the Danish cyclist Knud Jensen died at the 1960 Rome Olympics after taking amphetamines. His death was a major factor in motivating the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to begin testing for performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics.
In the 1970s, cyclists moved away from amphetamines and switched to steroids as the drug of choice. Professional cycling is a difficult endurance sport; cyclists might ride 20,000 miles a year. Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke, a Belgian rider, gave a spirited defense of steroid use. “In the Tour de France, I took steroids,” he said. “If I hadn’t, I would have had to give up. What do you think? I’m on the bike all year from February onwards, I have to do well in the classics in all the little races, and also in the Tour de France....You can’t call that medically harmful, not if it’s done under a doctor’s control and within reason.”
Despite drug testing, major doping scandals continue to rock the cycling world. The most widely abused performance- enhancing drug in cycling is erythropoietin (EPO), a naturally occurring hormone that is not an anabolic steroid. Cyclists inject EPO because it increases the production of red blood cells and allows the blood to carry more oxygen to the muscles.
However, anabolic steroids are still used. In 1998, customs agents stopped Willy Voet, an assistant for the Festina cycling team, at a routine border search. They found a treasure trove of drugs in his car, including steroids, amphetamines, EPO, and masking agents. The Festina scandal rocked the cycling world. An investigation led to the suspension, arrest, and prosecution of a number of riders and team staff members.
The most controversial anabolic steroid case in cycling was probably that of Floyd Landis. Landis, an American cyclist, was stripped of his overall victory in the 2006 Tour de France after a positive test result for anabolic steroids in two urine samples after stage seventeen. Landis vehemently insisted he was not guilty of using banned steroids, and a drawn-out hearing and appeal followed. Nonetheless, Landis received a two-year ban from professional racing following an arbitration panel’s ruling in 2007.
Landis’s fate did not seem to solve the problem of drugs in cycling. The 2007 Tour de France was wracked by a series of scandals, accusations, and gossip related to doping. By the end of the tour, several cyclists were dismissed or “retired” for testing positive for drugs or missing drug tests.
Weightlifting and Bodybuilding
Weightlifting has the dubious distinction of being the most drug- ridden of Olympic sports. That is not surprising considering that performance-enhancing drugs can make a huge difference in lifting heavy barbells. Technical skill is involved but raw muscle power is essential.
The list of anabolic steroids scandals in weightlifting would make a book in itself. Scandal effects go beyond the accused individuals because they cast suspicion over the entire sport. In the 1988 Olympics in Korea, Bulgaria and Hungary withdrew their weightlifting teams after some of their lifters were expelled from the games following positive drug tests. The negative publicity was so bad that the IOC considered completely removing weightlifting as an Olympic sport.
However, recent Olympics have not been noticeably freer of anabolic steroids. In the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Bulgaria was forced to withdraw its entire weightlifting team after eleven athletes tested positive for steroids. At the same Olympics, Greece only sent four competitors after eleven Greek weightlifters were suspended for doping. Both nations were weightlifting powers with previous offenses. Bulgaria was stunned by a doping scandal at the 2000 Olympics when three athletes returned their medals after positive drug tests. In the 2004 Olympics, a Greek weightlifter was stripped of his medal for taking a banned substance. The latest scandals have again triggered calls for weightlifting to be dropped from future Olympics.
Bodybuilding lacks the high profile of weightlifting because it is not an Olympic sport. However, several iconic bodybuilders, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva, have admitted long-term anabolic steroid use before the drug was banned in 1990. Anecdotal evidence implies that many bodybuilders continue to use anabolic steroids for muscle mass gain.
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