INHDR editorial, December

A Quarter Century of Doping Scandals

John Gleaves, California State University, Fullerton and Ask Vest Christiansen, Aarhus University

With the ongoing doping scandals, revelations, and confessions, it was likely that few celebrated this autumn’s significant anniversary in doping history. Twenty-five years ago—September 26, 1988—news broke of the first major doping scandal in the Olympic Games. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who just two days previously had won the 100 meter dash in a world record clip, had tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid stanozolol at the Seoul Olympics. Johnson was neither the first to use prohibited “doping” substances at the Olympics nor the first to get caught. Johnson’s case is notable because it marked the first time a high-profile athlete was unceremoniously stripped of his medal rather than having his results covered up or ignored. Johnson’s case is also useful for framing the ongoing issue with doping in elite sports while providing some insight into the current problem sport faces.

Though Johnson’s case brought widespread attention, the recent revelations from baseball (Ryan Braun), track and field (Asafa Powell), and cycling (Michael Rasmussen, among many) indicate the issue is far from solved. To be sure, doping did not start with Johnson. The International Olympic Committee had made efforts to ban doping as early as 1938, though they amounted to little more than lines in paper. Without real reforms, the practices persisted until a handful of high-profile deaths drew public attention to the risks of unregulated substance use. Though neither the death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen in 1960 nor British cyclist Tommy Simpson in 1967 were directly caused by amphetamines, as widely claimed, the athletes’ connections with doping spurred reforms. Still, it was the light version of an anti-doping campaign that dominated until 1988, when finally the IOC stripped gold from Johnson for doping. However, in the quarter century since, the sport’s world has witnessed the ebb and flow of doping scandals with the seeming regularity of the tides without much progress.

So why have these scandals persisted?

In part, it appears that solving the issue may mean sacrifices that most are unwilling to accept. History points out that athletes and officials lacked the will to really expose the problem of doping in sport. They may toe the company line and condemn doping but as a group they have yet to put their full effort into tackling the issue. More worrisome, humanities researchers have pointed out that the culture of “faster, higher, stronger” that rewards a single-minded pursuit of performance—and also creates an entertaining and commercially profitable product—breeds a community that logically gravitates towards drug taking for improved performance. In that sense, drug taking is only the outward symptom of a deeper issue within a society fixated on the ethos of competition.  Within that framework, sport is only the purest example.

What solutions do we have? If we want to simply eradicate doping from sport, possibly only two efficient ones: the first would be to reduce the importance of victory to a point where taking part is more important than winning, which would make use of performance enhancing drugs futile. The other would be to submit athletes to 24-7-365 surveillance, where every step they take is scrutinized, hence making concealed drug use impossible. Whereas the former idea would mean dissolving competition as the essence of sport and thus also make it largely uninteresting for (most) spectators, sponsors and possibly athletes, the latter involves a surveillance system that would make Orwell’s 1984 look like a humanitarian paradise. But is it really a “catch 22”?

First, we have to get rid of the idea of getting rid of the problem. We have to settle with less. Second, real headway involves wholesale changes to the culture of sport. What won’t work are harsher punishments, lifetime bans, or more drug testing. Too many members of the INHDR network have shown that this will not reach the root of the problem. An important part of the issue is a persistent sporting culture that tends to view doping as a public relations problem while quite willing to enjoy pharmaceutically-enhanced performance, whether it be to reach for new records, increase performance or obtain faster recovery. Real and lasting changes require sacrificing aspects of sport that we value like extreme devotion, risk taking, and ever-greater performances. It will also mean shorter seasons, fewer records, longer recoveries from injuries, and more ordinary performances. However, it is unclear if anyone is willing to go beyond lip service and make those tradeoffs. If not, we expect the cascade of doping scandals and confessions will persist for another twenty-five years.

The Commentaries in this INHDR newsletter

While anti-doping efforts remain adrift, the INHDR continues to grow. This growth is due in large part to its members. We wish to offer special thanks to INHDR members Sigmund Loland and Thomas Hunt and University of Texas graduate student Anne Mueller for their commentaries included in this issue. The commentaries provide an expedited opportunity to share and inform INHDR members of breakthroughs, resources, insights, thoughts, and developments in humanistic doping research.

We appreciate that many members of the network are busy with research projects, writing commitments, and deadlines in addition to teaching and professional service. We also realize that such commentaries are labors of love—they count little for tenure, status, or any other extrinsic benefit. The commentaries range from 500-1000 words, but otherwise have few constraints. Still, the few precious hours that Loland, Hunt, and Mueller carved out for their commentaries amount to a significant contribution. The authors’ provided readers from around the world access to ideas and information months (if not years) before conferences, peer reviewed articles, books, or word of mouth. Our internal records show that these commentaries are also widely read, thanks in part to their appearance on search engines. Thus these commentaries continue to ripple across the internet.

In that spirit, we encourage all members to consider contributing a commentary to the quarterly INHDR newsletter. If you are interested, a simple email to John Gleaves ( or Ask Vest Christiansen ( to let us know your intent will suffice. On the other hand, if we reach out to you directly for a contribution, we hope you consider making the effort. These commentaries provide a small but valuable contribution to the field of doping research.