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

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

In part II of our interview we hit some pretty controversial topics, like Michele Ferrari and the difference between European attitudes toward doping and American ones. And then there’s Russia—Padraig.


Q) If anti-doping regulations were on the books beginning in the 1960s, why was it not until 2000 that the World Anti-Doping Agency was formed?

A) Because images of cops hauling away athletes made the IOC’s blood run cold. When French national police got involved with enforcing doping during the 1998 Tour de France, the International Olympic Committee got nervous. The notion of Olympic athletes being handcuffed and taken away from the Olympic village was a nightmare vision for the IOC and Olympic sponsors. Also, in 1999 the IOC’s reputation was in tatters when it was revealed that IOC members had been bribed for their votes to put the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Eager to polish its image and show the world that it could take a firm leadership role in sport, the IOC proposed an international conference in 1999 to tackle what was by then perceived as a total doping crisis. While the objective of then-president Antonio Samaranch was to keep anti-doping under the IOC roof, his intentions were hijacked and the independent World Anti-Doping Agency we know today was born. One of the craziest things about that conference was when an American drug-control czar took the podium to lecture the IOC about getting its PED problem in order. It did not go unnoticed that the lecture came from a representative of a nation that sold supplements laced with steroids in supermarkets and health food stores and that advertised dope on TV.


Q) I want to dig a little deeper on the difference between the U.S. and Europe vis-a-vis attitudes. You say the Europeans were more paternalistic and Americans were more pragmatic, but in terms of the audience, it has long seemed that the Euros were the pragmatic ones, that they knew doping was happening, but didn’t really care. Does that fit with your research or have I just been in touch with some real cynics?

A) European organizing bodies like the UCI, IOC, and IAAF were pragmatic; they tended to overlook doping in the interest of growing sport and protecting sponsor reputations. The history of why is quite fascinating and logical, and I trace it in some detail in the book. However, some European governments—specifically France—took a strong stand on doping. When the French government criminalized doping in 1965 and sent in the police during the Festina affair in 1998, they were sending a strong message that government knows best, and was going to use its resources and power to try to change athlete behaviors. Also, in 1963 a Pan-European agency, the Council of Europe, sponsored a series of conferences where members of the European medical community began to express their concerns about the health risks of doping in sport. These conferences were partly a reflection of growing social anxieties about widespread drug use in society at large.

In the United States, concern about doping in sport really only became a policy issue when legislators could use it as a means of grandstanding about their concerns over law and order. In my book I explore how the War on Drugs that began during the Nixon administration bled into sports. American politicians usually expressed concern about doping in sports when it could gain them political points and paint them as defenders of some iteration of the Silent Majority. One example of this that I explore in Spitting in the Soup was 1990 federal legislation that tightened controls on steroids. Shortly after federal lawmakers were passed these anti-steroid laws, they drew up 1994’s Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). That legislation deregulated the supplement industry and freed supplement makers to sell steroids like androstenedione to anyone who walked into a WalMart or GNC.


Q) As a journalist, my digging back through cycling’s history has seemed to show that the UCI didn’t put much effort into anti-doping efforts until Tom Simpson’s death. Yes, the were doing testing of riders in the 1950s and ‘60s—quotes from Coppi and Anquetil are easy to source—but they didn’t seem to really get serious until Tom Simpson’s death. My perception then has been that the UCI didn’t care about clean cycling; they just concluded that dead riders was bad for business.

A) I don’t think it was death alone that precipitated action. It was death plus the rumor of drugs. After all, head injuries and heat stroke kill far more athletes than drugs, yet the UCI did not make helmets mandatory until 2003 and riders are still racing in crushing Middle East heat. Because drugs are associated with moral corruption, personal perversion, and social decay, they make for far more interesting reading than heat stroke, so that’s what the sports media writes about. And news of deaths like Simpson’s and the earlier false reports about Jensen in 1960 were focusing events that inspired the IOC and sports-specific governing bodies to start to form anti-doping regulations. I have several chapters in the book on how the inherent sensationalism of drugs turned PEDs into a risk with apparent dangers far larger than what had ever been clinically documented.


Q) Periodically, reporting on doping will contain what I consider to be some surprises, like in Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell’s book “Wheelmen” when they asserted that Jan Ullrich was actually clean when he raced against Lance Armstrong in 2000 and 2001. The orthodoxy has long held that all those guys from that era were all dirty. I’m wondering if your book will have some similar surprises.

A) Well, Dr. Ferrari was right; under a doctor’s supervision EPO is not dangerous, especially compared to the inherent dangers of cycling like training on roads shared by automobiles or racing without a helmet. Also, there is no evidence that EPO has ever killed a cyclist. However, the story of a new drug wiping out cyclists was too juicy for the media to ignore, so they hyped EPO as weapon of mass destruction in the early 1990s. Another surprise is the premise of the book—we are all dirty. The orthodox view is that doping is inherently evil, and that sport will return to a state of fair play once we get rid of the bad guys. While this parable is morally comforting, it’s historically ignorant and far too simplistic. From fans, to the media, to athletes, to governing bodies, to sponsors, there is far more momentum to overlook doping than to try to stop it. And I don’t necessarily think this is sinister. Anti-doping is a relatively new force in sport, and it’s attempting to impose a moral and medical order on competition that is completely at odds with sport tradition and the true spirit of elite sport—to enlist technology in the interest of extreme human performance. The anti-doping infrastructure that began to take crude form in the 1960s is like Christian missionaries showing up in the Sandwich Islands or South America. They are attempting to impose a moral and spiritual order that is alien to the sporting natives, and the transformation is going to take time, and human rights are going to get trampled along the way. But here we are, Hawaiians speak English and go to Christian churches today, and South Americans speak Spanish and Portuguese and follow the Pope. It took centuries, but the transformation took place.


Q) Lance Armstrong has long decried his “unfair treatment” at the hands of USADA. While I don’t think many people disagree with his lifetime ban, what’s your take on the fact that his wins were stricken from the records, while the wins of guys like Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich stand? Similarly, there are guys who, given the limits of human physiology and the period in which they raced almost certainly didn’t race clean. Here, I’m thinking specifically of guys like Miguel Indurain and Jens Voigt. Does your book address this disparity? If not, would you care to comment on it?

A) I don’t go into the disparity with Lance’s treatment. However, even though the United States is a hugely hypocritical johnny-come-lately to the anti-doping party, in terms of sending a message about USADA’s seriousness and independence, it made sense for Tygart to go after the top American dog. I interviewed Tygart for the book, and he feels that holding Armstrong accountable was important because he broke the rules. The fact that USADA stripped his Tour victories sucks for Armstrong, but it sends a strong message that even though it was formed 35 long years after Europeans started to pay attention to drugs in sport, USADA is trying to remain immune to the nationalistic and economic forces that have traditionally treated doping as a public relations problem. Moreover, Tygart feels that creating a drug-free space in sport is important in the United States because the country has so completely normalized and destigmatized the use of performance enhancing drugs in everyday life. Cradle to grave, Adderall to Viagra, we are one of only two countries on earth that allow drug makers to pitch their pharmaceuticals directly to consumers on television. For Tygart, attempting to create a drug free domain in sport is a sort of antidote to our government-sanctioned love of doping in everyday life. While we might like to pretend that drugs in sport and drugs for everyday living are separate issues, the two are extremely permeable. It’s a topic I cover in some detail in the book.


Q) The IAAF ruled that Russia is barred from the 2016 Olympics because of its doping program. What do you make of this ruling?

A) Especially since the Cold War, nationalism has fostered sophisticated doping programs. East Germany’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program is the most infamous example—a system far more sophisticated and well organized than anything the US Postal team had going. State-organized doping has always been in the interest of projecting an image of national strength and vitality on the geopolitical stage, and countries have ramped up their doping programs in an effort to stay at par with the medical programs devised by their political foes. In advance of the 1984 Olympics, for example, the United States used its anti-doping lab to help ensure that American athletes were clean before the Los Angeles games. If the Soviet Union is truly barred from Rio, in theory this could be a step toward halting the escalation of state-sponsored doping and doping-evasion measures. It’s certainly a bold move, especially since the IOC is so dependent on multinational corporations to fund the Games. Russia is a big market, and their athletes also bring fan-pleasing drama to the events. Excising the Soviets from the Games for the country’s systematic thwarting of anti-doping regulations suggests that anti-doping might be evolving away from rhetoric and show to action and substance.


Q) In proposing a nonfiction book to a publisher, the is traditionally a promise asserted, that the reader will get X from the book. What do you hope is the reader’s big takeaway in reading “Spitting in the Soup”?

A) Doping in sport is deeply traditional, while anti-doping is a radical new invention that runs contrary both to the high-performance-seeking spirit of sport and the medicalization of everyday life. The story is more complex than a schoolyard parable of good guys and bad guys. And though it’s uncomfortable to admit, in many respects fans and the media are complicit with the continuation of doping in sport. I hope readers will come away with a better understanding of the forces that make the moral and chemical sanitization of sport an incredibly audacious and difficult project. I think it’s still worth pursuing, but Spitting in the Soup will help readers understand just how complex the mission is.

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  1. Peter

    Thanks for this interview series, Padraig. Really excited to pick it up and read about the dichotomy of drugs in life vs. drugs in sport.

  2. Bramhall

    Hey Padraig,
    This reads like a one-shot email interview because you don’t have any depth of follow up here, so I’m going to take that as a given – by all means correct me if not.
    Johnson’s interchangeable use of Russia and Soviet Union in the IAAF question makes me really uncomfortable for a few reasons.
    First and foremost, of course, the USSR was more than just Russia. And while I don’t think that Kazakhstan is squeaky clean (hello to the IWF results of 2012 London retests), it’s not fair to cast aspersions on them all based on Sochi.

    I wonder if you had any follow-up with him about this? It’s kind of a bummer to end the interview on. But I’m really looking forward to this book.

    1. Author

      First, this is a two-part interview, though, to your point, I didn’t do any follow-up questions. The reason why is that it isn’t really appropriate. This interview isn’t about answering everyone’s questions; it’s meant to spark your interest in the book, which will do a much more effective job of answering your questions.

  3. Drew B

    This may be an unpopular opinion but I have no problem with doping at the elite professional level of competition.

  4. jim

    “In advance of the 1984 Olympics, for example, the United States used its anti-doping lab to help ensure that American athletes were clean before the Los Angeles games.”

    For realz? If so, they may not have been trying very hard.

  5. RickV

    I’m curious about Johnson’s comments, ” In advance of the 1984 Olympics, for example, the United States used its anti-doping lab to help ensure that American athletes were clean before the Los Angeles games.”

    While the blood doping administered by Dr. Ed Burke was not illegal at the time, it certainly cast a pall over the legitimacy of Team USA’s nine medals.. Five of those medalists, plus three more from the team, confessed to being part of the US blood doping program. (Gold medalists in the road race, Connie Carpenter and Alexi Grewal, notably did not). This was done with the knowledge and active participation of Ed Burke (of course), federation vice president Mike Fraysse ,and coach Eddie Borysewicz..

    Padraig, perhaps you or Mark could comment.

    1. Brian Ledford

      Was blood packing (I think that was the term of art then) regarded as even regrettable, never mind unethical? I vaguely remember that it was being touted/described as being state of the art scientific training, akin to training at altitude. I think the feeling was that it was your red blood cells that you earned, and you had to make more, so it was absolutely fine.

  6. Mark Johnson

    Thanks for taking time to read the interview. The 1984 Los Angeles testing lab and the 1984 US cycling team blood doping were two different happenings. Autologous blood boosting was not yet banned in 1984, so the US cyclists who blood doped (only a fraction of the entire team) were not afoul of IOC or UCI regulations. I cover this in chain of events and the subsequent media and regulatory response in detail in the book. The drug testing lab is a separate story and in part a response to events that went down at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, where at least 15 athletes from multiple countries were snagged by new HP anti-doping machines. News of the effective anti-doping tests inspired 12 American athletes to drop out of the Pan Am games and head home before they even touched the track. In an effort to spare American athletes and Olympic organizers similar embarrassment at the 1984 LA Olympics, the USOC asked to use the IOC-established dope testing lab in Los Angeles to test US athletes in advance of the Games. This is a fascinating story, and I also discuss it in the book.

  7. John Kopp

    From this interview, it appears that the Mark is confirming what I have observed over the past 50 years of drugs in sports. It appears to me that sports medicine is viewed by the IOC and other officials as doping and must be banned. The introduction of PED’s being banned in the 1960’s coincided with realization that amateur status was no longer working to keep undesirables out of sports, specifically Eastern Bloc “pro” athletes out of the Olympics. At least that was my impression. Another point that I hope you have addressed is do the athletes themselves approve of all banned substances on the WADA list? Did they even have a choice? One part of the Festina affair was a riders strike that ended way too soon. So, I am assuming no. I think it was the Dutch ADA conducted a survey of riders and found 95% of Dutch riders used PEDs. I doubt very much that the drug problem will be solved until there is consensus from the riders themselves. I had a job that required drug testing, and I found it to be demeaning. I never failed a drug test. But that’s not the entire story. I’ll just say that I had a good Union. I also worked for the Air Force, which had drug testing. The drug program was used as a political tool to get ride of undesirables rather than for safety considerations.

    As for LA, I find it hard to find race coverage of cycling, and sponsorship is way down, so I think a lot of people are upset about him being sanctioned as he was.

    Looking forward to the book.

  8. gary stetler

    An excellent premise for a book on modern use of PEDs. PEDs are quite acceptable to help a scientist, student or coder stay focussed on their jobs and perform to the best of their ability. Antidepressants help those with chronic depression work with fewer absences and greater productivity. It brings up the questions of where is the line and why is it drawn where it is? For example, corrective lenses help cyclists who would be totally noncompetitive if they didn’t wear them, for those riders it is performance enhancing. Riders whose VO2 max is reduced by asthma can get TUE’s to allow them to remain competitive. But riders who recover more slowly than others in a 3 week race would not be allowed to use most products that would help with their problem which is likely to be due to inherent physiological differences from those who can. Athletes should have some say in where this line is drawn. Or perhaps we should go back to the Greek games, all athletes naked, no corrective anything and compete based solely on what their genetics and dedication provides them.

    1. Mark Johnson

      Interview part III is the book! Available at any bookseller, plus all the usual eBook formats–Kindle, Nook, iBook, Google Play.

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