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Until recently, diplomatic historians have demonstrated little enthusiasm for sophisticated, archive-based studies of sport and international relations. Moreover, political scientists have refrained almost entirely from integrating athletics into their theories about the nature of the international political system. Members of the microfield of sport history have with few exceptions isolated themselves from both groups. Former National Security Council member Victor D. Cha lamented, "If the operative question is how sport 'fits' into our understanding of world politics, then the bottom line is that the existing literature offers no clear or consistent answers."
Reflecting this general underdevelopment, the few works of scholarly note on performance enhancement in sport have generally been limited in their temporal coverage, attention to political processes, and employment of archival evidence. Even so, the absence in the existing historiography of a comprehensive, archival source–based history on the evolution of Olympic doping policy seemed remarkable. After all, the International Olympic Committee instituted the first major anti-doping program in competitive athletics, exerting a profound impact on the world's leading sports organizations.
With these considerations in mind, I initiated a research strategy that took me to documentary collections in both the United States and Switzerland. As I worked through the records held by these institutions, my interest in global politics led me away from questions pertaining to the philosophical nature of performance enhancement in athletics—currently a leading interpretive paradigm through which scholars discuss the subject. This work instead attempts to connect the history of Olympic doping policy to larger global developments.
Human actors play a significant role in history, of course. Every attempt is nevertheless made to link individuals to political forces originating both within and outside the Olympic governance structure. Greatly reducing the difficulty of this analytical endeavor, the persons involved were often themselves quite conscious of these connections. In a noteworthy manifestation of this awareness, Olympic administrators throughout the period under examination repeatedly expressed the belief that they were charged to lead a sporting movement operating virtuously above an unforgiving landscape of international politics. Ultimately, this principle of regulatory independence became partially realized.
Though still subjected to the influences of nation-states, Olympic administrators developed their own administrative structures, legislative codes, and enforcement procedures. Astonishingly, national governments for the most part recognized this autonomous governance system as legitimate. From 1960 until the late 1980s, private Olympic administrators maintained substantial authority over the anti-doping policies employed at their competitions.
In doing so, these officials arrogated a number of powers historically wielded only by governmental authorities. Just as national legislatures throughout the world enacted drug legislation for their respective citizens, so the IOC began in the mid-1960s to promulgate its own list of prohibited substances. At the enforcement level, Olympic officials mirrored procedures employed by law enforcement officers, conducting scientific analyses of body fluid specimens collected from potential wrongdoers. With few exceptions, governmental bodies conceded that doping disputes fell outside their legal jurisdictions; athletes competing at an Olympic competition thus carried only limited rights to public judicial review.
From the perspective of the global political system, these developments at first glance appeared to represent an erosion of state power in an area traditionally dominated by states. Such an interpretation, however, fails to appreciate the profound policy influence exerted by state governmental units. As continued to be the case in nearly every aspect of global affairs, nation-states time and again proved to be the primary actors affecting the evolution of Olympic doping policy.
Engaged during the Cold War in a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the world, the United States and the Soviet Union came to view elite international athletics as part of a larger scientific rivalry. National participation in international competition offered a way to instill in their respective citizens a sense of patriotism—a task deemed requisite to success in the conflict. Moreover, both superpowers conceptualized power in sport as a means of impressing allies in their respective spheres of influence. Leaders in Moscow remained especially sensitive to the possibility that sport offered the satellite nations of Eastern Europe a potential means of undermining Soviet prestige both within and outside the Eastern bloc.
The idea that Olympic success was indicative of national power motivated nations on both sides of the Iron Curtain to allow regulatory jurisdiction over performance enhancement to remain in the hands of private sports authorities. Far from wishing to restrict doping in international sport, Soviet-bloc officials often actively sponsored the employment of performance-enhancing substances. Though political leaders in the United States refrained from such direct involvement, they worried over the seemingly dominant Eastern-bloc sports teams. Finding themselves in a sort of "prisoner's dilemma," they exerted little pressure on national sport organizations to confront the issue. The net result was that actions taken by Olympic officials were less likely to produce tangible progress.
At first, state units played little role in the design and implementation of Olympic doping policies. After classifying doping as a major policy issue in 1960, Olympic officials found themselves negatively affected by four interrelated problems: (1) indifference to the subject among some of their colleagues, (2) scientific difficulties pertaining to the detection of certain chemicals in the human body, (3) ethical and scientific ambiguity as to the definition of "doping," and (4) political difficulties resulting from the fragmented nature of the international sport system.
International sports leaders govern through a diffuse network of independent organizations, all of which possess different interests, jurisdictions, and powers. It is easy to mistake Olympic officials as working within a hierarchical structure featuring the IOC at its apex; their governance activities actually occur through a confederation of competing institutions. Until recently, administrators at all levels of this organizational system tended to formulate doping policies with the idea of minimizing public controversy. Meaningful reforms were deferred while a series of scandals continued to plague the Olympic movement.
At one time or another, members of nearly every organization in the international sports network were rumored to have participated in doping cover-ups. As a result, the use of potentially dangerous ergogenic aids continued to spread while the IOC focused on addressing such comparatively innocuous practices as training at high altitude. By the end of the 1960s, the failures in Olympic doping policy had given rise to an environment in which, as stated by Sports Illustrated journalist Bil Gilbert, "The doctor and the chemist [would] soon be as important to an athlete as a coach."
During the 1970s, nationalism accelerated as a causal factor in the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs among Olympic competitors. The German Democratic Republic's infamous Stasi secret police organization, for example, instituted a state-sponsored doping regime that administered dangerous pharmacological agents substances to some 10,000 athletes. Notwithstanding the adoption of several progressive steps during the decade—including the institution of anabolic steroid testing at the 1976 Montreal Summer Games—Olympic officials were unable to neutralize this type of state involvement. Thus, efforts at reform within the elite sports establishment remained relatively ineffective. Compared to the resources held by national governmental units, those available to Olympic policymakers simply remained too limited to produce meaningful reform.
The influence exerted by the international political system in aligning states against anti-doping efforts gave way during the concluding stages of the Cold War. Measured throughout the course the superpower conflict principally in terms of raw geopolitical power, status in the emerging world order now derived to a greater extent from one's reputation for fairness and responsibility. National authorities began to take an increasingly direct role in combating performance-enhancing substances in international sport.
Governmental authorities usually enact major policy changes only after the occurrence of what political scientists call a "focusing event." Catalyzing the fervor for doping reform on the part of national units, such a focusing event occurred when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson failed a test for anabolic steroids after setting a new world record in the 100-meter sprint at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. In light of a subsequent investigation of the episode by the Canadian national government, Olympic leaders worried that their movement might be subjected to unwanted political intrusions unless meaningful steps were taken to address the problem of doping. In response to the tangible threat that governmental units might take complete regulatory control over the issue, momentum finally built over the course of the next decade for the creation of a quasi-independent agency to oversee international doping policy.
With its funding and management split between national political units and the global sporting community, the World Anti-Doping Agency went into operation in November 1999 under a mandate to implement a universal drug regulation strategy. In order to maintain its autonomy from the IOC and the other components of the Olympic community, the new agency underwent a difficult process of consolidating power over performance enhancement in international sport for most of the next decade. The partnership between national political units and private sports organizations in this regulatory framework represented a critical shift in the politics of doping. Thus, systemic changes in world affairs led to a more unified policy environment for anti-doping initiatives.
The anti-doping effort of the Olympic movement developed within a dynamic, multilayered framework. International Olympic Committee leaders have varied in their commitment to anti-doping. From the beginning, the governance structure of the Olympic movement was too fragmented to allow for an effective, centralized approach to anti-doping. Complicating that governance structure has been the interface between IOC anti-doping practices and other national and international sport institutions—as well as national governments. Each of these points of interface have provided fertile ground for conflicting spheres of jurisdiction. Far above this amalgamation of competing institutional interests, global geopolitical forces have set the stage for how doping—and the athlete who participates in such practices—is to be perceived: patriot, or cheat? Finally, the array of doping substances and activities has continued to expand, forever stretching the capacity of scientists to construct means of testing. As we look to the future, toward heretofore unimagined scenarios of genetically altered athletes, the early history of doping in the Olympics offers some insights into the forces behind the progress—and stagnation—of anti-doping policy in sport.