The Strange Story of the First Person Disqualified From the Olympics for Doping

knudOlympians have been bending (and occasionally breaking) the rules in an effort to give themselves an edge over the competition since the games began. Despite this, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) only started testing for performance enhancing substances in 1968, and only seem to have really started taking the issue seriously in the 1990s. As for the 1968 Games, despite that a large percentage of Olympians are thought to have been using performance enhancing drugs, they only managed to catch and disqualify one guy. What dangerous substance did he take to get himself disqualified? He drank two beers before an event, resulting in him becoming the first person to be disqualified for “doping”.

To really drive home how ingrained using performance enhancers is in Olympic culture, and to highlight how endemic is was before the IOC began to crack down on it recently, ancient Olympians were known to drink “potions” containing mysterious, often exotic herbs, or even ground up animal testicles, in the belief that doing so would give them an edge. Much like the athletes that wear colored tape (see: Why Do Olympians Wear Colored Tape?) or more recently the use of cupping therapy, it didn’t really matter if the thing actually helped them- only that they thought it did.

Although there were no specific rules against using performance enhancing substances back then, there were rules in place against the use of magic to “curse” or otherwise unnerve an opponent. In other words- in the ancient Olympics, you were free to use anything you wished to improve your own performance, but you weren’t allowed to try and negatively impact the performance of others. As far as we can tell, this didn’t actually stop people from doing such things.

When the Olympic Games were revived in the 19th century, athletes were similarly open to having various substances put into their bodies if it had even a small chance at giving them the ability to perform citius, altius, fortius.

For example, Thomas Hicks, the winner of the 1904 Olympic Marathon was given doses of strychnine and shots of brandy in the middle of the race by his trainers in full view of gathered crowds and officials.

At the time, strychnine was used in small doses as a performance enhancing drug. Anything but small doses would, of course, kill the athlete via asphyxiation due to paralysis of the respiratory muscles.  However, if the dose wasn’t too large, strychnine was believed to provide a performance boost via the muscle spasms it relatively quickly induces. They gave Hicks three doses during the race… This was only part of the way in which his trainers almost killed him.

You see, while his trainers were willing to give him, essentially, rat poison and brandy, they refused to give him any water despite the sweltering Missouri summer heat. By the end of the race, Hicks was delusional and had to more or less be carried to and over the finish line as he was too weak to remain upright on his own. He immediately passed out upon finishing and the doctor was unable to revive him for almost a full hour. Despite not being able to finish the race without help, he was nevertheless declared the victor. (See: The Trials and Tribulations of 1904 Olympic Marathon Runners)

And if you thought that being carried over the finish line made for a questionable victory, Hicks only won after it emerged that the first person to finish, Fred Lorz, had traversed most of the course by car. You see, due to the amazingly bad conditions in the race, Lorz decided to quit and hitched a ride back to the starting point. When he exited the car and subsequently jogged back into view of the spectators, everyone just assumed he’d ran the whole thing, so he went along with it. Eventually his automotive adventure came to light, at which point he claimed his pretending he ran had all been a joke.

Back to doping in the Olympics. The IOC didn’t officially ban certain dangerous performance enhancing substances until the late 1960s, and even then, it took the death of an athlete to jar them into taking a stand. That athlete was a cyclist competing in the 1960 games on behalf of Denmark called Knud Enemark Jensen. He collapsed and subsequently died in the middle of a race, with it widely reported that the cause of his collapse was that he’d been given a cocktail of drugs, including Roniacol, by his trainer beforehand.

Of course, it should also be noted that at the time it was 108° F (42° C) out and what actually happened was that Jensen succumbed to heat stroke and then fractured his skull after falling off his bike- the official cause of death was brain injury resultant from his fractured skull. Although it was ultimately determined that drugs probably didn’t have anything to do with Jensen’s death, the IOC was shaken enough by the media backlash to decide to ban, at least officially (more on this in a bit), certain substances starting in the 1968 Games.

Although testing was in effect during the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, no athlete is known to have been caught with a performance enhancing drug in their system.

The same couldn’t be said for that year’s summer games. (At the time the Winter and Summer Olympics occurred in the same year) During those Olympics, as mentioned, Swedish athlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was found to have alcohol in his system.

Though alcohol may seem like the exact opposite of a dangerous performance enhancing drug given that it dulls the senses, clouds judgement, and is otherwise pretty safe in moderation, in the right quantities, there was, and still is, a popular idea that it gives one an advantage.  How?

The hypothesis goes that in skill based games that rely more on muscle memory than things like reaction times- games like darts, billiards and even target shooting- alcohol could, perhaps, potentially improve performance in individuals prone to stress or “overthinking“. Whether actually helpful or not, in Liljenwall’s case, he was trying to use the alcohol for this very purpose and so drank two beers before a shooting event to steady his nerves, and hopefully hands.

After his urine was found to contain alcohol, Liljenwall was disqualified and was ordered to return the bronze pentathlon medal he’d won while under the influence. Not stopping there, the rest of Sweden’s pentathletes were also forced to hand back their medals for Liljenwall’s mistake.

What makes Liljenwall’s disqualification even more bizarre is that, seemingly, little was actually being done to stop anyone else from using performance enhancing drugs.

You see, they only used urine tests during the 1968 games out of fear that blood tests could potentially spread infection or cause some sort of injury to the athletes. Although today urine tests are fairly comprehensive and accurate for many things, back then the science was still in its infancy and the chemists performing the tests were only looking for a very specific set of substances, mostly “hard drugs” like cocaine and heroin, but not steroids.

In fact, in 1969, an American weightlifter responded to being asked about the recent ban on amphetamine use by defiantly saying, “What ban?” He went on to explain that he and his fellow athletes had all used a new drug recently developed in West Germany that couldn’t be detected during the previous Olympic games, openly bragging: “When they get a test for that one, we’ll find something else. It’s like cops and robbers.

Beyond some using undetectable drugs, others would use a catheter to fill their bladder with someone else’s urine directly before testing. Women had another trick up their, well… not sleeves… in the use of a condom filled with clean urine cleverly hidden inside the vagina.

Because the IOC was only testing urine and the tests were fairly inaccurate and not very sensitive on the whole, more low-tech methods of avoiding detection included drinking a lot of water to dilute results beyond the capabilities of the testing of the age to detect anything in, or simply rejecting the test results for various reasons.

For instance, in a non-Olympic event at the 1970 Weightlifting World Championship in Ohio, all three medalists were found to have banned substances in their urine. Despite this, they were allowed to keep their winning medals. Why? Due to systemic issues with testing procedures, with some athletes even managing to get around being tested at all, including the guys who came in fourth, fifth and sixth place at this event, there was no way to ensure the medals would definitely go to someone who hadn’t cheated. Given that the orginisation knew well that pretty much all of the top lifters were using drugs, they reasoned the winner should probably just be the best of the cheaters.

This same problem plagued the Olympics as well. Dr. Robert Voy, formerly in charge of drug testing for the U.S. Olympic Committee, noted that, beyond inherent problems with the accuracy of the tests, complete lack of quality control in the samples, and inconsistent procedures from test to test, because the tests were so easily fooled, those in charge of the drug testing resorted to “a less libelous approach to testing called ‘sink testing,’ used to prevent false positive reporting and legal challenges. This now nonexistent method meant all samples were collected but either were not tested or were simply poured down the drain.”

Dr. Voy went on to state, “The athletes knew better than anyone that the drug testing posed little threat to them.  They scoffed at testing notices and went right on with their routine drug use with little fear of detection.”

In fact, one survey of track and field athletes from seven different nations in the 1972 Olympics revealed that a whopping 61% of them admitted to using steroids before those games. The actual number of track athletes using is thought to have been higher as presumably not everyone taking steroids would be so keen on admitting it, even in an informal survey.

The reason they could be so flippant, particularly about using steroids was that, while drugs like alcohol, heroin, and cocaine were being tested for, as previously mentioned, at this points steroids were not.

On top of that, even if they tested positive for substances that were being tested for, they could simply say their sample wasn’t handled or tested right, which may well have been true. Other excuses included things like- if they’d been using heroin, they could say they’d been eating poppy seed muffins, and even could be publicly seen doing so to back their story. (And yes, that is really a thing, even today- see: Can Eating Poppy Seeds Really Cause You to Fail a Drug Test?)

It would not be until the late 1980s when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson stunned the world by setting a new world record- 9.79 seconds- in the 100m sprint, and subsequently had his medal stripped three days later after testing positive for stanozolol, that the public began to wake up to the problem.

Beyond Johnson, there was evidence that six of the eight sprinters in that race were likely using steroids. This was a problem in the sport that famed Olympian Carl Lewis (who finished 9.92 seconds in that sprint) raged against in the media before the 1988 games, noting “There are gold medalists at this meet who are on drugs, that [100 metres] race will be looked at for many years, for more reasons than one.”

Funny enough, Johnson’s trainer, Charlie Francis, would later come out and say the fact that Johnson tested positive for stanozolol just showed the flaws in the Olympic testing procedures.  You see, Johnson was actually taking the steroid furazabol, as he didn’t like the way stanozolol made him feel.  Francis also claimed that at the time all the top athletes in the sport were taking steroids.

In support of Francis’ assertions, in a recent CBC documentary, Ben Johnson: A Hero Disgraced, a former IOC official revealed that approximately 80% of the track and field athletes in the 1988 Games showed significant signs of long-term steroid abuse. Not only that, but 20 actually tested positive but were nevertheless cleared for the Games by the IOC. It has been claimed that the reason the IOC was so keen on allowing these athletes to compete was due to pressure from NBC who didn’t want the games to “collapse in scandal”. They were also supposedly refusing to pay the IOC owed funds and threatening to withdraw broadcasting the Olympics that year if such a thing happened before the Games.

The media frenzy that surrounded Johnson’s rapid downfall, along with the public becoming aware of the widespread use of steroids in the Olympics, resulted in the IOC finally putting significant effort into ending performance enhancing drug use among Olympics athletes.

In the end, when one’s very livelihood is on the line and said individual has such a small window of opportunity for success, from the original Olympics to modern times, athletes have always sought to gain any advantage whatsoever they can find, even today often resorting to pseudoscience like colored tape or cupping therapy. Unfortunately for those that play within the rules, for some, ignoring them for the chance of a podium and the financial windfall that comes with it is sometimes seen as worth the risk of getting caught.

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Bonus Fact:

  • The aforementioned idea that alcohol can improve performance in sporting events is jokingly called the “Optimal Altered State Theory”. It basically posits that every person has an optimal state of drunkenness at which they’re able to perform better at certain tasks than they would while sober. As you might imagine, there is little in the way of hard evidence supporting this hypothesis, but who doesn’t know someone who has claimed, “I play better when I’m drunk!”
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