Lance Armstrong’s finally confesses to be a drug cheat; can cricketers stay away from the chemical menace?

Lance Armstrong (Left) interviewed by Oprah Winfrey regarding the controversy surrounding his cycling career. Oprah’s exclusive, no-holds-barred interview with Lance Armstrong, will be aired on January 17 and 18 © Getty Images

Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace is just one highlight in the long association between sports and doping. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the way chemicals have affected the sporting scene and discusses how cricket has been largely free from drugs. But in these days of corporatisation, can it maintain innocence for long?

It is hardly a vice of the modern times. It is the story of man’s relentless quest for riches, glory and immortality. Even the earliest history and mythologyare full of drugs that made one invincible, elevating their physical prowess to beyond the domains of the mortal.

The ancient Norse warriors – the Beserkers of unstoppable fury–are supposed to have gulped down a mixture called butotens, probably made from Amanita muscaria mushrooms. This is claimed to have increased their physical power a dozen-fold. Interestingly, this mythical concoction was supposed to have a side effect – performance enhancement came at the risk of insanity.

And as Lance Amrstrong slides towards universal ignominy, hurtling from the pedestal erected for the immortals to the lowly quagmire reserved for the dishonest, one wonders if insanity plays a part in such great tumbles.

What makes such phenomenal athletes indulge in risks that, in a cruel backlash of karma, can take away everything they have earned, drag them down from the summits they have climbed with colossal amounts of sweat and blood? Is the quest for victory the ultimate stimulant that clouds senses and makes all illegal substances permissible? Even with the lurking dangers of infamy, physical damage and, sometimes, death?

In war and sports

The act of taking drugs is, as stated, not a product of the evil modern times.

Warriors all around the world were known to eat hearts, brains and livers of animals, riding on the faith that they would become more skilful – swifter and stronger. In West Africa, tribesmen consumed cola nitida to improve performance and Chinese commanders ingested Ma Huang for various stimulation purposes.

Even in the ancient Olympics, Greek athletes consumed special diets including dried figs, wine, wet cheese, meat and a variety of mushrooms. In the Roman era, stimulants mixed with alcohol were consumed by gladiators to recover from fatigue and injuries, while charioteers spiked the food of the horses to make them run faster. In Peru and Mexico, participants ate coca leaves for endurance in competitions.

And when competitions involved superhuman endurance, drugs became even more useful.

Enhancing endurance – the cycling connection

In 1807, Abraham Wood, participating in a British walking race that stretched across hundreds of miles, confessed that he had used laudanum to keep himself awake for a full day.

By the third quarter of the 19th century, long-distance walking races became extremely popular – drawing crowds across the land. Soon men with business acumen developed similar races for cyclists. In This Island Race, Les Woodl and remarks that cyclists were “much more likely to endure their miseries publicly; a tired walker, after all, merely sits down – a tired cyclist falls off and possibly brings others crashing down as well. That’s much more fun.”

As people flocked to watch multiple-day races, noxious fumes of drugs did enter the scenario. Across Europe and America, men pedalled their bikes along rough terrains for thousands of miles. Prize money increased and superhuman workload became a financial necessity. The muscles and organs, bowing to the forces of nature, were required to be revived artificially.

Nitroglycerine, normally used to stimulate the heart after cardiac attacks, was used to enhance breathing. Like the old Norse legend, it made riders insane – at least temporarily. They suffered from hallucinations. American champion Major Taylor refused to continue the New York race, saying: “I cannot go on …there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand.”

The year 1886 witnessed the first recorded casualty when cyclist Arthur Linton died due to overdoses of trimethyl.

Nor were the ethical and legal boundaries very clear when it came to mixing drug and sports.

Thomas Hicks won the Olympic marathon gold in 1904. Fred Lorz, who reached the finish line earlier, was disqualified for hitch-hiking half the course. However, Hicks himself started to struggle halfway through the race, and trainer Charles Lucas jogged beside him with a hypodermic syringe and injected him with sulphate of strychnine, while also making him gulp down large amounts of brandy. Those days, strychnine was considered necessary rather than illegal in long distance races. The official race report said: “The marathon has shown from a medical point of view how drugs can be very useful to athletes in long-distance races.”

Hicks hovered dangerously between life and death before recovering. He never ran a race again.

There was some criticism about the brutality of resorting to tactics that made athletes go queer in head and turn their faces hideous with torture. However, the first admonishments against doping came only in the 1920s, and the first legal steps much later.

All the while the science of enhancing performance went through its cycle of refinement.

In November 1942, the Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi took seven packets of amphetamine to beat the world hour record on the track.

The Drug Race

During the Second World War amphetamines had played a leading role. Soldiers from both sides had taken it, and Nazis had experimented with doses on the prisoners, as well as on Hitler himself. As the world woke up to uncertain peace, athletes the world over started taking amphetamines.

The end of the Second World War saw the advent of Cold War, Arms Race and spy novels. In the midst of all this, a long drawn out competition went on in the sporting field – the contest for chemical supremacy. The Soviets and the Eastern Bloc countries experimented with male hormones, and the Americans developed anabolic steroids. It was state-endorsed doping, the magic potion that would bring glory to athletes, countries and even world dividing political ideology.

The science of avoiding detection was also perfected. Virtually no East German athlete ever failed an official drugs test, though the country’s infamous Stasi files show that many did, indeed, test positive at the Kreischa Laboratory.

And yet, amidst this crazy conversion of sports into a medical playing field and a mindless factory producing fine-tuned monsters, it was the athlete who risked all. Reputation was at stake, medals would be snatched away on detection andthere were terrible health hazards. But, the pursuit of greatness is often a malady that overrides sense and sensibilities.

At the Rome Olympics in 1960 Danish cyclist Knut Jensen collapsed, fractured his skull and died – and amphetamines were found in his autopsy.

Seven years later, Britain’s Tommy Simpson passed away from abusing amphetamines during the Tour de France.

It was only in 1968 that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a list of banned substances. Testing for drugs began from the summer Olympics that year, held in Mexico City. It did not stop the abuse of drugs and athletes.

In 1972, Dr Björn Ekblom of Stockholm invented ‘blood packing’ – a method of removing blood, increasing the concentration of red blood cells in a centrifuge, then restoring it through transfusion.

In 1976, East German swimmers won 11 out of 13 Olympic events. Almost two decades later it emerged that they had been pumped with steroids.

With time, infamy and shame splashed across sporting world, as the names under the doping cloud became mightier.

The 1988 Seoul Olympics saw Ben Johnson test positive for an anabolic steroid, and the medal and 100 metre world record were stripped from his proud collection. Six years later Diego Maradona was banned for taking a cocktail of five drugs. In 1996, Michelle Smith won four swimming gold medals at Atlanta and was found guilty of manipulating samples.

In 1998, the Festina team were expelled from Tour de France after trainer Willy Voet was caught with 400 vials of illegal drugs.

And in the same year, multiple gold medallist of the 1988 Olympics, Florence Griffith-Joyner, died at the age of 38, from a heart seizure probably caused by steroid abuse in her early years.

With passing years, nandrolone came into the picture.

Linford Christie was another big name to be shamed. Now the stigma fast encroached other sports such as tennis and football. Peter Korda, Greg Rusedski and many others fell to investigations.

Nor is cricket clean

As might be expected, performance enhancing drugs generally thrive in sports requiring phenomenal endurance or abnormal strength. Team sports such as cricket and soccer generally tend to escape from such scandals. There are the odd macabre sportsmen who indulge in drug abuse, but their dalliance is more often than not with recreational drugs rather than performance enhancing ones. Maradona and Ian Botham can smoke a few weeds from time to time and Shane Warne may get high on diuretics. But, seldom is the motive to gain the extra run, wicket or goal by coasting on questionable chemicals.

However, not always are even the popular team sports free from drug related cheating.

Everton’s triumph in the1962–63 season, for example, was later established to be influenced by Benzendrine. The Spanish Police initiative, Operation Puerto, implicated 200 sportspersons with blood doping. Of these, approximately 50 were cyclists and 150 other sportspersons, including several high profile soccer and tennis players.

Cricket, the gentleman’s game, for long managed to stay beyond the tentacles of the doping world. As long ago as the Bodyline era, captains were known to keep their fast bowlers going with generous doses of beer and other alcoholic stimulants, but such practices were considered quaintly endearing rather than unethical.

Yet, times have changed. While several cricketers have smoked cocaine now and then, and some like Paul Smith have confessed quietly after bidding adieu to the game, some have not been absolutely honest in their intentions.

Duncan Spencer was one of the early offenders, testing positive for nandrolone after a one-day match for Western Australia.

And then came the two Pakistani mavericks, bent on scorching the cricket pitches with their pace, at the cost of accuracy, reputations and playing careers. In October 2006, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif were banned for taking nandrolone. Subsequently, in spite of several conflicting verdicts of guilt and innocence, the pair of fast bowlers had to miss the 2007 World Cup.

In 2011, on the eve of the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand, Upul Tharanga tested positive, with metabolites of prednisone and prednisolone found in his urine sample. However, the anti-doping tribunal was satisfied with his explanation that he had taken some herbal medicine for a shoulder problem, and he was banned for just three months.

The damages have been limited till now. Yet, the dangers that loom cannot be overlooked.

Calendars are increasingly crammed with cricket, of different formats involving different skills, pay packages and prestige. In some ways, Twenty 20 sluggers are more and more resembling the giant baseball batters, relying on brute strength rather than finesse and technique. The multiple formats and the packed calendars, along with after-match parties that are the requirements of corporate contracts, cricket is taking on the form of an endurance sport as well.

One wonders whether with the changing demands, financed by corporate finances, doping will soon become a part of the strategies. Will some great cricketing superstar turn into Lance Armstrong? Only time can tell.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at