Review: Spitting in the Soup – Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports (Velo Press)
(2016) Let us focus on two hinge moments in the world of sport: The point in history when more Americans lived in the cities, and the day a Danish cyclist died.
Imagine the inspirational days in the late 1800s. Endurance events were the rage. Events such as pedestrianism, the challenge of who could walk the farthest in a given time period had crowds lining the street cheering the competitors on. Then came the bicycle to snuff out pedestrianism’s greatness. Crowds lined the streets and fences to watch bike racing both on the road and on the velodrome boards. The American landscape was changing from scattered hamlets to swelling cities.
With people migrating to cities comes the need for entertainment. A new chapter in history was born when suddenly teams could sustain themselves as a business venture and the concept of a professional athlete followed shortly after America’s population centered on cities.
In Mark Johnson’s new book, Spitting in the Soup, he argues this moment as a sort of Big Bang for sports. A new idea, being an athlete for a living, was perfect for mankind’s personality. Man continues to strive upward with technology, so therefore athletic events were viewed as a healthy accompaniment to the persona. As we’ve seen, there are two sides to sporting’s upward movement. One involves the tinkering of equipment, and that includes coaching and diagraming perfect form. The second – and arguable darker side – was the seeking of cocktails to make performance more efficient.
But let’s consider this moment of sporting’s Big Bang. Endurance was the romantic notion of the day. Cyclists specifically were taking part in six-day races. Marathon races were attended by only scores of participants. Somewhere over the hill, pharmaceutical companies were just getting started to make some of the medication we know today. If an athlete wanted to remain viable, s/he sought every option, drugs or otherwise to remain on the top podium. It wasn’t the times of cheating; it was merely the sign of the times.
The Tour de France’s participant guidebook made it clear that the organizers would not provide drugs for the cyclists. Each rider was responsible for his own regimen. Marathon runners would come in for ‘pit stops’ to get injections of strychnine and shots of liquor. Amphetamines were used with regularity. These were the times the athletes lived in. How could the concept of drugs be considered dirty if (literally) everyone was doing it?
Mark Johnson brings compelling evidence in his exhaustive study of the evolution of drug use in sport. His argument, much like a window shade, starts at the beginning. As the shade is pulled up, Johnson brings each topic with us like slats on the window shade. He progresses to the first drug use disgrace, which was - believe it or not - doping to go too slow. Those who used drugs and won were considered heroes. Use drugs to slow someone down? That was the real disgrace at the time.
Johnson progresses through the fifties and into the sixties when the second hinge moment in sport happens. Johnson talks about the death of Knud Jensen, a Danish cyclists in the Rome Olympics who would eventually die in the team time trial. The many unknowns about Jensen's death are one thing, but over time experts stated he died of amphetamine usage. His autopsy has still not been released, even fifty years on. Though Johnson goes through all of the factors in his death: the 100-degree heat, the coach’s decision to forgo water bottles leading to dehydration, the extreme distance, the lack of proper first aid care, experts (who never saw the autopsy) latched onto amphetamine usage to conclude it as the reason for his death. Jensen became a global political football despite trying to be a simple cyclist in the Olympics.
The doping aspect in sports would slowly begin to lean on its axis. Ambiguous and immeasurable rules began to appear in handbooks. A basic, “Thou shalt not take drugs” rule was added, but drug enforcement was nowhere to be found. Johnson wonderfully catalogs the extremely slow progression of weeding out drugs from sport.
He continues on to document drug use as a proxy war during the Cold War era. I remember a family member commenting on East German female swimmers who were sporting mustaches in the eighties. As much as Americans would like to think we were off the juice, Johnson reveals the political humiliation of being handed losses by communist countries in the Olympics as well as the ‘win at all costs’ orders handed down by several presidents. Johnson takes the argument well past Dr. Ferrari and the moral ambulance of American athletes. We all have heard of the mysterious 'eighteen cyclists died in their sleep' but Johnson points out how that missive was fabricated during the EPO years.
With the longer darker days of the off-season coming up, this book could fill in the time wonderfully. Johnson has meticulously documented the history of doping in sports to give us a glimpse into its society. Several questions begin to emerge after reading this book. Why can rock stars be put on pedestals for their drug usage but athletes are considered disgraceful? Where is the line of proper supplements and improper supplements? If a product is sold over the counter, does it therefore make it a performance enhancing drug? The definition of performance enhancement nearly covers sporting equipment, so how can sports be progressive while not considered performance enhancement? If tests are kind of catching people, what has really changed if those testing are corrupt or in-the-know? And finally, since drug use in sports is always one step ahead of the testing, what wild stuff is out there?
Considering some of the allegations from the Sochi Winter Olympics about the types of drug usage, Mark Johnson may have a sequel for his book, Spitting in the Soup, in a few years’ time. Take a weekend to read it; the book is a great read.
Spitting in the Soup - Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports (VeloPress, $24.95)