In the first part of this two-part feature, we looked at performance-enhancing drug (PED) use in early 20th century organized sport and World War II, and how the then-popular attitudes towards PED use were reflected in the superhero comics of the time. Have sensibilities regarding PED use changed in the years since?
The Olympic Arms Race
Though never categorically confirmed, many sports historians generally agree that the first case of systematic doping in the Olympics occurred during the 1952 Summer Games held in Helsinki, Finland, when mostly unheralded and unknown athletes from the Soviet Union easily broke several longstanding weightlifting records and dominated the Greco-Roman wrestling mat. In its Olympic Games debut, the USSR went on to post the second biggest medal haul behind only the United States. The Soviets would displace the Americans atop the Olympic medal standings four years later in Sydney, Australia.
During the 1954 World Weightlifting Championships in Vienna, US team physician and Ciba Specialty Chemicals researcher Dr. John Bosley Ziegler casually quizzed his Soviet counterpart over their training regimen. The latter replied that the USSR athletes were being given extracts containing the anabolic steroid testosterone (in such extreme doses that the athletes’ testicles were shrunken and their prostates so enlarged that they needed catheters to urinate). Intrigued by the admission, Ziegler started putting himself and a small number of athletes under his care on low-dosage anabolic steroid trials. He noted that the trial subjects began to exhibit improved strength and muscle mass gains during training. In 1958, Ziegler had settled on Dianabol (a Ciba Specialty Chemicals-developed formulation of the anabolic steroid methandrostenolone) as the best candidate for a strength-enhancing supplement for use by the US weightlifting team. By the 1960 Olympics, select members of the US weightlifting team were on an approved anabolic steroid regimen. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union and its satellite states handily won the gold in six of the seven weight classes in weightlifting—five by the USSR, one by the People’s Republic of Poland—while the United States managed a single gold. Between 1963 and 1968, anabolic steroid use spread rapidly from the weightlifting and wrestling disciplines to athletics. A PED arms race paralleling the military and political one-upmanship of the Cold War had begun, proving again that, as it was in antiquity, organized sport is “the little brother of war.”
Drug Deaths and Double Standards
The first confirmed athlete death to be publicly linked to PED use was that of Knud Enemark Jensen, a Danish cyclist who died during the 1960 Olympics 100 km bike race. An autopsy revealed that Jensen took an amphetamine and nicotinyl alcohol tartrate (a vasodilator) prior to the race. The IOC issued a resolution against doping after the public release of Jensen’s autopsy findings in 1961, but it wasn’t until the death of the highly-decorated British cyclist Tom Simpson, who collapsed during the grueling 13th stage of the 1967 Tour de France, that more stringent measures were considered. Three vials—one empty, two loaded with amphetamines—were recovered from Simpson’s jersey by first responders, and there were reports that Simpson had been drinking brandy to dull the pain of stomach cramps he had been experiencing on the morning of that fateful day.
The public outcry over Simpson’s death helped convince the IOC to finally put in place a medical control service for the 1968 Olympics, with the prohibition covering the use of narcotic analgesics, psychomotor stimulants, and alcohol (anabolic steroids wouldn’t be banned until 1975). However, PED screening methods remained crude into the early 1980s, with the results of Olympic drug testing during the period from 1968 to 1980 now regarded as being suspect and unreliable by today’s standards. Even when drug screening methods were drastically improved in 1983 (that year, a dozen US track & field athletes suddenly withdrew from the Pan American Games after a new, more sensitive drug screening test was announced), many of the athletics and weightlifting records set during the 1980s are generally considered to be questionable in terms of whether or not they were set by clean, non-doping athletes.
Through all these developments, there existed a popular notion in the general public that PED use and abuse was qualitatively different from the use and abuse of recreational drugs, even though many substances, amphetamines and opiates among them, fell into both categories. Taking drugs “to win” was viewed as being ethically superior to taking drugs for the sake of “getting high” and by some morally-loaded false logic, the latter was deemed more dangerous than the former. This attitude was starkly reflected in the Comics Code. While it did not specifically prohibit the depiction of drug use, a general clause within the Code was interpreted by publishers and editors to mean that the depiction of drug use was disallowed in comics, even if drug use were to be depicted in a negative light. DC Comics editorial director Carmine Infantino stated in early 1971 that the publisher would not “do any drug stories unless the code is changed,” even as Hourman continued to take Miraclo pills to gain his vaunted “super-energy” and the Elongated Man drank the “Gingold” tonic to develop his stretching powers. Marvel Comics, for its part, continued its tradition of pharmacologically-empowered super-warriors by having the Black Panther gain superhuman senses and peak human physical attributes by eating a secret herb. A Marvel Spotlight story published in 1976 revealed (“retconned”) that Nick Fury had been taking the Infinity Formula since the end of World War II to retard the effects of the aging process and to boost his physical attributes to Olympic athlete levels. In all these cases, neither the Comics Code Authority nor the publishers considered the actions of the characters as falling under their definition of drug use.
When superhero comics publishers did push against the Code and depict what they considered to be drug use in their pages, it was in the service of moralistic, cautionary tales exclusively highlighting the dangers of narcotics or hallucinogens. Some stories were more nuanced and better executed than others, but the stories failed to impart a subtle but nonetheless important principle that is too often disregarded in the popular discourse on drugs to this day: Any drug, whether used for performance-enhancement or recreationally, whether procured legally or illicitly, and whether it is used as indicated or “off-label,” has the potential for side-effects and adverse effects, and that potential risk is unaffected by the user’s goals and moral convictions.
Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Nuke, a supervillain they created in the pages of Daredevil in 1986, was the first real attempt in Comics Code Authority-era superhero comics to seriously address PED use. American servicemen used more amphetamines during the Vietnam War than the combined Allied and Axis troops used in World War II, and the military’s indiscriminate consumption of what were euphemistically referred to as “go pills” informed the pair’s take on the drug-enhanced super-soldier. Nuke took red pills to heighten his physical attributes and to raise his aggression, blue pills to calm himself down, and white pills to even out his moods. The character served as an indictment of the US federal government’s two-faced stance on drugs: Pushing its “War on Drugs” effort on one hand while turning a blind eye to the growing amphetamine abuse problem in the military, even as evidence was mounting that amphetamine abuse was a contributing factor in many friendly fire incidents during the Vietnam War and succeeding military operations. As noted by University of New South Wales history and philosophy of science professor Nicolas Rasmussen in his 2008 book On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine
[Amphetamine] was doubtless involved in numerous friendly fire incidents in Vietnam, both accidental and intentional, as well as crimes against civilians. Such incidents, of course, do not prove the drug responsible. The underlying situation which created the need for amphetamine or heroin in combat—jungle combat amidst a hostile civilian population—also created extreme tensions that sometimes led to murder. Still, the excess aggression and paranoia generated by amphetamine could only have worsened the situation. And because heavy amphetamine use creates a craving for relaxation and the rest, the military’s supply of amphetamine to soldiers must have also aggravated the heroin addiction problem, as users moved from one drug to the next, just as they did in Haight-Ashbury.
Miller and Mazzucchelli’s Nuke also served as commentary on the American “pill culture” that created an environment ripe for the misuse of prescription stimulants, sedatives, tranquilizers, anti-depressants, and mood stabilizers. A rapidly growing public health concern in the mid-1980s, prescription medication abuse is a problem of epidemic proportions today: In 2008, more Americans (20,044) died from prescription medication overdoses than all other illicit drug overdoses combined (16,406).
So where does all this leave us? It is clear that people from all fields will continue to use performance-enhancing drugs as long as their perceived benefits outweigh their potential health risks and as long as they can find methods to circumvent screening. Moral and ethical arguments against PED use are not as airtight as they would seem. Military combat is not a sporting event that should be saddled with concerns about sportsmanship and multiple internal studies by the US Air Force have determined that the potential risks posed by amphetamine use are not enough to offset the survivability and performance gains they provide in extended missions. In sport, the idea that PEDs are immutably antithetical to the concepts of fair play and the safeguarding of athletes’ health is open to question. A 2004 paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine makes two intriguing assertions concerning the legalization of PEDs in sport: (1) Legalization can actually lead to a more level playing field, allowing poorer athletes who have limited access to advanced training equipment to gain the same kind of training advantages available to their more affluent peers
Forget the romantic ancient Greek ideal. The Olympics is a business. In the four years before the Athens Olympics, Australia spent $547 million on sport funding, with $13.8 million just to send the Olympic team to Athens. With its highest ever funding, the Australian team brought home 17 gold medals, also its highest. On these figures, a gold medal costs about $32 million. Australia came 4th in the medal tally in Athens despite having the 52nd largest population. Neither the Australian multicultural genetic heritage nor the flat landscape and desert could have endowed Australians with any special advantage. They won because they spent more. Money buys success. They have already embraced strategies and technologies that are inaccessible to the poor.
Paradoxically, permitting drugs in sport could reduce economic discrimination. The cost of a hypoxic air machine and tent is about US $7000. Sending an athlete to a high altitude training location for months may be even more expensive. This arguably puts legal methods for raising an athlete’s PCV beyond the reach of poorer athletes. It is the illegal forms that level the playing field in this regard…
and (2) the current climate of PED prohibition actually exposes athletes to more health risks and “testing for health” rather than “testing for drugs” is the better and safer approach to drug use regulation in sporting events
Black markets supply a product that is by definition unregulated, meaning that the use is unregulated and the safety of the product is questionable.
Athletes currently administer performance enhancing substances in doses that are commensurate with the amount of performance gain they wish to attain, rather than the dose that can be considered “safe.” The athletic elite have near unlimited funds and the goal of near unlimited performance, a framework that results in the use of extremely unsafe doses. If athletes are excluded when their bodies are unsafe for competition, this kind of direct consequence from prohibition would be reduced.
Whatever the future holds for performance-enhancing drug use in sport and elsewhere, what is clear is that progress in PED issues will be slow and difficult in coming as long as misinformation and inconsistent policies rule the day. While no longer the wildly popular medium that it was in the 20th century, comics might still be able to help matters with more thoughtful and well-considered depictions of drug use, instead of simply reflecting popular-but-misguided attitudes as it has done so many times in the past.