The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 138 | Faster, Higher, Stronger: Sports, Super-Soldiers, and PEDs (Part 1)

Leaving Proof 138 | Faster, Higher, Stronger: Sports, Super-Soldiers, and PEDs (Part 1)
Published on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 by

Citius, altius, fortius. Faster, higher, stronger. Over the next couple of weeks, the Olympic motto will be repeated again and again, reminding us of the ultimate goal of the world’s greatest athletes in these games: Victory. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge might have said in his opening speech that “honor is determined not by whether you win, but by how you compete,” and that “character counts far more than medals,” but for the elite athlete, winning on the world stage against the planet’s best competition is the absolute validation of a lifetime immersed in competitive sport, a commitment that sometimes comes at the cost of health, social interaction, and other things that spectators occasionally take for granted.

With such high stakes involved, it should perhaps not surprise us that athletes and their coaches seek out and devise any and all advantages in competition, in some cases recklessly skirting the limits of—or outright violating—the Olympic anti-doping regulations in their pursuit of medals and acclaim. At the time of this writing, four athletes have already been suspended or sent home for various doping-related offenses, and that number is sure to rise in the days to come. The modern Olympic motto should be “citius, altius, fortius, acutulior“: Faster, higher, stronger, smarter.

It’s easy for the spectator to dismiss the actions of anti-doping violators as the activities of cheats and frauds, the unscrupulous and the lazy in search of a shortcut to athletic excellence. But the truth of the matter is, performance-enhancing drug (PED) use in elite sport and elsewhere is a very complex issue that goes beyond simple black-and-white notions of fair play, sportsmanship, and health.

“Sports is to War as Pornography is to Sex”

Mural in the El Tajin site showing a losing ōllamaliztli player being ritually sacrificed (photo by Tom Aleto)

When social psychologist and pop psychology book author Jonathan Haidt said that “sports is to war as pornography is to sex,” he wasn’t just offering up a catchy TED Talks soundbite. His statement was offered as a metaphor, but direct historical links do exist between sport and warfare. Besides serving as outdoor recreation, some of the earliest recorded competitive sports, such as the Mesoamerican game of ōllamaliztli, Persian polo, and Chinese cuju, also functioned as ritualized proxy warfare and military training. The ancient martial origins of many modern Olympic sports such as archery, boxing, judo, wrestling, and the decathlon’s javelin throw are also readily apparent to all observers.

Organized sport allows the modern human to exercise what Haidt calls “ancient, ancient drives” based on the in-group/loyalty behavior value, the value that saw—and continues to see—expression in hominids forming tight-knit social bands that put them into conflict with other bands for standing and limited resources (although humans are the only hominids to consistently form bands that extend beyond close blood relations). Given the deep-seated biological and psychological underpinnings of group loyalty, the unthinking fanaticism sports teams inspire and the ridiculous lengths that some athletes and their coaches go to in order to win prestige for their country become a little less baffling, if no less disturbing at their most extreme.

Modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin wrote in 1908 that “the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well,” and that phrase has come to represent what contemporary competitive sport is about. But we aren’t so far removed from our ancient past that our collective cultural memory has lost touch with the time when losing meant death or slavery. In marginalized societies where excellence in sport represents one of the few viable and legal ways out of poverty, winning and losing on the field of play are still matters of life and death. All but the least imaginative and empathetic of us are capable of picturing a situation where Red Sanders’ credo that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” holds some measure of subjective truth.

Better Living Through Chemistry

Did Olmec ōllamaliztli ballplayers chew coca leaves for added energy in tournaments? Did Song Dynasty cuju players have access to opium poppy-based treatments that allowed them to play through the pain of injuries? There’s no hard evidence to support such suppositions, but it is highly unlikely that the use of plant-, animal-, and mineral-based preparations, potions, powders, and poultices, so common in ancient societies the world over, did not find its way into early organized sport.

Pope Leo XIII endorsed Vin Mariani, a cocaine-infused wine

Whatever the case, by the early 19th century, what we would now categorize as performance-enhancing drugs were commonly being used in the United States and Europe, not just in sport, but in popular society and industry as well. Renowned inventor Thomas Edison credited Vin Mariani (a commercially sold tonic that consisted of wine infused with cocaine extracted from coca leaves) with helping him to stay alert and awake for longer hours. Participants in the popular “walking races” and six-day bicycle races of the day would occasionally use opiates, and sometimes alcohol, to enable them to compete through the pain of sprained muscles and swollen tendons. Cornermen used ammonium carbonate (“smelling salts”) to revive semi-conscious boxers between rounds. In 1924, Albert Londres interviewed 1923 Tour de France winner Henri Pélissier for the newspaper Le Petit Parisien and the Paris native claimed that drug use on the tour was rampant, with racers taking cocaine and “dynamite” (glyceryl trinitrate pills) to gain a competitive edge, though there is good reason to doubt Pélissier’s more scandalous claims, as he had been banned from the race at the time of the interview over some personal dust-up with race organizer Henri Desgrange.

Still, during the first half of the 20th century, there didn’t seem to be much concern among sporting organizations for the possible deleterious effects PEDs could have on fair play or athletes’ health. In 1928, only one major sports regulation body, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), had banned the practice of doping and they had little in the way of scientific screening methods—the proscription was symbolic at best.

Part of the early and mid-20th century society’s laissez faire approach to casual PED use stemmed from the largely positive regard the man on the street had for the relatively young science of pharmacology. Dubious tonics and miracle elixirs in cloudy green bottles had been replaced by vaccines, sulfa drugs, and antibiotics that actually worked as advertised. By the 1930s, early research with amphetamines revealed their tantalizing promise as a treatment for behavioral disorders in children, rhinitis, and nasal congestion. The fruits of pharmacology were helping to lengthen life spans, reduce mortality and morbidity rates, and improve the quality of life. Utilizing the same knowledge and technology to transcend the limits of human strength, speed, and endurance seemed like an intuitive application of our growing facility with human biology and chemistry.

This attitude was reflected in the popular print entertainment of the day. The 1930s and 1940s saw the emergence of a particular brand of comics hero, one endowed with abilities beyond those of mortal men by the power of sera and pills, not by a mystic boon, alien physiology, or clever gadgetry. Most visible of these characters was Timely Comics’ Captain America, a frail fine arts student who is turned into a “peak human” super-soldier by a top-secret combination of a special serum and radiation. Stan Lee’s Destroyer, who also appeared in comics published by Timely, benefited from the same formula that gave Captain America his peak human physique and reflexes. Yet another early 1940s Timely Comics superhero with a similar explanation for his abilities was the the Whizzer, who gained super-speed after receiving a transfusion of mongoose blood to counter the effects of a cobra’s venomous bite. Cross-town publishing rival All-American Comics had its own pharmacologically-empowered superhero in Hourman, a costumed crimefighter who constantly popped “Miraclo pills” of his own design, a single dose of which would give him “super-energy” that lasted sixty minutes at a time—a rather transparent fictionalization of the effects of amphetamines and related stimulants that were in popular use at the time of the character’s creation.

In a curious case of life imitating art, performance-enhancing drugs were making actual super-soldiers out of World War II troops on both sides of the conflict, temporarily gifting those who partook of them with sharpened attention, hair-trigger reflexes, a reduced need for sleep, and outsized confidence (or an irrational lack of fear, depending on one’s perspective). By 1945, an estimated 72 million amphetamine and methamphetamine tablets had been made available to British aviators, sailors, and infantrymen. American servicemen were reportedly provided with much, much more. In Nazi Germany, a Berlin factory owned and controlled by the company Temmler Pharma GmbH produced 35 million three-milligram methamphetamine tablets (“Pervitin”) over the span of four months in 1940, for eventual distribution to Heer riflemen and Luftwaffe pilots. Near the conflict’s end, German pharmacologists were testing a “miracle pill” composed of cocaine, methamphetamine, and morphine for use by submarine crews. It’s difficult to objectively assess the impact the massive proliferation of stimulants had on the conduct of the war, but it would be naive to think that it didn’t influence battlefield behavior and combat outcomes in at least some instances.


In Part 2: PED use in sport and combat continue into the Cold War era. Yup, you know where this is headed:

Discuss this article below or contact the author via e-mail
6 Responses
    • I just want to say, Rollerball!
      Now everyone chant “Jon-a-thon! Jon-a-thon! Jon-a-thon!”

    • I’ve always wanted to do a Captain America story where he’s at a school giving a lecture and a kid asks Cap why it’s okay that he used steroids, which is what the super soldier serum is.  There have been plenty of stories done (just recently as well, in the last couple months) where Cap loses the abilities of the serum and ends up proving that it’s the man that he is, not the abilities he has, that make him Captain America.

      But Hourman… yeah, there’s no way around that one.  He gets his abilities from a pill.

      • The thing about Hourman though is, it’s not as if Ken Fitch and Bernard Baily were pushing some sort of pro-amphetamine agenda when they made the character in 1940.

        At the time, amphetamines (as well as its methamphetamine cousin) were really viewed by the layman as some sort of miracle pill that made people more alert and energetic, and did a great job of clearing up nasal passages to boot when sprayed directly into the nose, although a few case studies concerning what would eventually be called “methamphetamine psychosis” were already known in segments of the medical community at the time. An “amphetamine-powered” superhero back then was probably viewed in the same light as, say, a superhero that used ray guns and jet packs and whatnot. 

        • True.  They’ve had stories dealing with addiction to the pills before, but he always, but he still uses the formula.  The last incarnation, pre-New 52, used an injector to pump the chemical directly into his blood.

          •  Like Bane, the injector pump is no better than using the pills. Pumping steroids to become “super” is all the same.

    • […] Buzzkill #1. The idea of an alcoholic superhero isn’t particularly unique and the notion of a superhero who derives his powers from drugs isn’t new, but I’m fairly certain that isn’t the feature of Donny Cates and Mark […]


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