Spitting in the Soup: an Interview with Mark Johnson, Part I

Spitting in the Soup: an Interview with Mark Johnson, Part I

Argyle Armada author Mark Johnson has spent the last two years researching and writing a comprehensive look at doping, called “Spitting in the Soup,” published by VeloPress. I’ve been hearing about this book for a good year and I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release. Johnson is not only an immensely talented photographer, but he’s an accomplished writer as confirmed by his Ph.D. in literature. He’s the right guy to examine not just the history of doping but its place within the history of sport—Padraig.

Q) A lot of books have been written about dopers. Why another?

A)  A lot of good books have been written about individual athletes who doped. Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Ben Johnson, David Millar, José Canseco—they all either wrote or were the subject of books about their individual acts. I was interested in the larger historical context of doping. Turning to chemicals to push human performance has always been essential to sports—especially pro sports that got their start in the late 1800s. I wanted to understand how and why doping became an act of moral deviance, a crime against self and society. What happened to make doping a categorical evil?

Olympic and pro-level athletes are both more genetically blessed and victory-obsessed than the rest of us. Deviance from the social and genetic norm is what makes elite athletes the best. How was it that taking drugs became unacceptable amongst a group of people whose very life path is a screw you to the social expectations and self doubts binding the rest of us?  

Another paradox that fascinated me was why did doping in sport become diabolical at the same time doping for better human performance became normalized in society at large? In the 1950s Americans and Europeans adopted mood enhancing tranquilizers like Miltown and day-brightening amphetamines like Benzedrine and Dexedrine with wild enthusiasm. You could even go into a bar and order a Miltini—a vodka martini with a couple of Miltowns in the place of olives.  The normalization of drugs as an unremarkable part of everyday life continued unabated through the 70s. And we are still full gas on the drug pedal today. More than 6 percent of American kids are on stimulants like Adderall—an amphetamine—often in the interest of higher school performance. Of the 46 million prescriptions for ADHD stimulants written in the United States in 2010, 23 million were for kids. By 2014 stimulant prescriptions were up to 58 million, and 65 percent of the adults with ADHD drug prescriptions don’t even have a diagnosis for the condition. We shove speed down our gullets by the shovel full, and then go into moral meltdown over doped bike racers. That is a paradox I wanted to understand.  


Q) In the early days of bike racing, taking drugs to finish a six day race or Paris-Roubaix was no big deal. What altered opinions about chemical tools?

A) Especially in a sport like cycling, technology has always been part of the athlete’s quest to create an uneven playing field—one where the winner is better fed, trained, rested, and equipped than all their competitors. After all, the spirit of elite sport is exercising the pure will to win. Until the 1960s, drugs were an unremarkable part of the rider’s technical toolkit. At the turn of the century, for example, press reports of six day races and marathons describe athletes taking drugs as evidence of their commitment to craft. At the 1904 Olympics, drug-taking American athletes were celebrated as proof that the New World man was not afraid to embrace technology to distinguish himself from tradition-bogged Europeans. There was definitely a nationalistic flavor to some of our celebration of doping.

While track and field organizations and the International Olympic Committee dropped a few sentences into their regulations about doping in the late 1920s and mid-1930s, these were not strictures against doping as an inherently evil act, but rather warnings against an inherently professional practice. In fact, from the time the modern Olympics started in 1896, Olympic organizers recommended that cycling not be part of the games because it was an inherently professional sport. The Olympics were all about protecting amateurs; what pros did to ply their trade did not matter as long as professionalism did not creep into the Olympics.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Olympic organizers started to expand the frame of reference and doping became a risk to not only amateur status, but also moral and personal health. The transformation came about for a few reasons.

In Europe a couple of deaths focused attention on the health risks of doping and inspired pan-European sports and medicine organizations to reconsider whether or not it was a good thing for athletes to take drugs. One of those deaths took place at the 1960 Rome Olympics when a Danish cyclist named Knud Enemark Jensen suffered heat stroke during the team time trial and was placed in a broiling tent for two hours until he died. While the press and a growing group of concerned sports doctors blamed his death on amphetamines, there was no evidence that he had in fact taken stimulants. Heat stroke and bad trauma care killed Jensen. However, for the media, even though it was based on sheer rumor, doping was a better story because it combined fear and sensationalism into an irresistible package. Beginning with Jensen’s death, performance-enhancing drugs began their transformation into a source of dread. The seeds of today’s global anti-doping infrastructure and bureaucracy were also sown in the 1960s. The media invention of the story of performance enhancing drugs as weapons of mass destruction is really fascinating, and it’s thread I follow throughout the book.


Q) You mentioned the origins of European and American anti doping. How have Europe and the United States approached the problem differently?

A) The Europeans were paternalistic. The Americans were pragmatic—as long as no one else was being hurt, and business was good, we had little problem with doping. In 1965, Belgium and France were the first countries to criminalize doping in sport, partly because governments in those countries saw doping as an issue of exploited worker rights. Especially in cycling, racing was so hard, and the expectations of team owners and race organizers so extreme, that government stepped in to try and protect athletes from their own will to succeed and their bosses’ eagerness to extract more performance spectacle. Also at the time, the medical community was developing a better understanding of the health risks of amphetamine abuse and addiction. Governments stepped in to protect worker-riders from the potential dangers of what lawmakers perceived as employer-mandated drug abuse. With the Festina affair at the 1998 Tour de France, the French government doubled down on its efforts to protect riders from exploitation. By tossing riders and their enabling team staff in jail, under the guidance of a strong-willed communist minister of sport, French authorities were sending a message that the government was getting serious about protecting labor from exploitation.

In the United States, on the other hand, we did not form an anti-doping organization until 2000—partly in response to the formation of WADA, which kind of forced the Yanks to at least pretend we were concerned about what had become a full blown hysteria over doping in sports.  

During the 1960s in heavily doped sports like baseball and football, drug use did not cause teeth gnashing like it did in Europe because Americans tend to take a more laissez faire approach to how businesses and individuals run their internal affairs. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, you can do whatever the hell you want. Also, because baseball formed a strong union in the 1960s, there was no way the invasive, government-knows-best approach of the French would fly in the U.S. For union leaders and players alike, asking workers to submit to year-round government-agency surveillance and demanding that they bleed or piss in a cup on demand would have been rejected as a  fundamental violation of worker’s rights. It really wasn’t until the 1990s that United States politicians started to make noise about steroids. And even then it was political theater to help elected officials maintain political power, not legislation draw up from heartfelt desire to protect athletes from harm. Historically, the American puritan impulse never focused on drugs in sport.


Q) Where did the title Spitting in the Soup come from?

A) It comes from a French cycling term that pro riders would cite when one of their brethren threatened to come clean about the commonality of doping in the sport. Why would you spit in the cycling soup that feeds you? Only rather than focusing on complicity among individual cyclists, which is already well-covered elsewhere, the book investigates the complicity of  fans, the media, governments, Olympic organizing bodies, sponsors, and team owners who also don’t want to ruin the nourishing spectacle of drug-enhanced sport.

It may be emotionally satisfying to argue that if only cycling could pull up the bad weeds like Lance Armstrong, it could return to the good old days of pure sport. But this is a kindergarten representation of life: bad wolves and innocent sheep. This argument also denies the reality that pure sport never existed, and that doping is much more than a matter of ethically deviant individuals who are too greedy or weak  to say no to drugs. Doping in sport is a collective enterprise. The missionary campaign that took root in the 1960s to to purify the sporting natives is a new and radical project that invites hypocrisies all around.


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  1. Shawn

    Thanks for this interview. Sounds like an interesting cultural history of doping which I am putting on my summer reading list.

  2. James

    Indeed, this sounds like clear-eyed take on the historical underpinnings, rather than a pro- or anti-doping screed. Look fwd to it.

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