It’s true: The first banned substance an Olympian was caught using was ethanol. At the 1968 Mexico City Games, Sweden’s Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall helped power his country to third place in the pentathlon, only to see the bronze medal go to France when he failed a drug test and got his team disqualified.
The International Olympic Committee had adopted rules against performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) the year before, and while alcohol might not be one’s first choice of a PED, Liljenwall acknowledged that he’d downed a couple of beers before the pistol shooting part of the pentathlon. As countless suds fans across the centuries can attest, it does wonders to calm jittery nerves and provide fortitude for the challenge ahead.
But since alcohol (still banned) is easy to detect, athletes needed PEDs that weren’t. Testosterone and synthetic anabolic steroids, ephedrine, furosamine, human growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, EPO, methylhexanamine … if science could make it, athletes would use it.
Munich (1972) was the speed (amphetamines) Olympics; Montreal (1976) was a movable feast of anabolic steroids. There was not a single positive drug test at Moscow (1980) — because testers hadn’t figured out how to detect the cornucopia of lab-made steroids athletes were taking, and those Olympics came to be called the Chemists’ Games.
Doping has since become an arms race between cheaters and Olympic officials (in the form of the World Anti-Doping Agency, established by the IOC in 1999). The former took chemical compounds thought to improve endurance, speed, recovery time (so they could train harder), and strength. Meanwhile, the IOC banned such compounds and developed tests to detect them.
Athletes then took new compounds that officials had never thought of, while the IOC developed more tests. And on and on it went. First it was natural chemicals, then synthetic, and soon, maybe genetic. In the future, STAT expects to bring you reports of athletes CRISPR’ing their genes.
How clean has IOC testing kept the games? Although in 2000 a court in Germany found two ex-officials of East German sports guilty of “systematic” doping of scores of Olympians with steroids from 1974 to 1989, the IOC caught exactly one. Over the decades, samples vanished. Samples were switched. Officials tipped off athletes about what level of a banned substance could be detected. And, of course, there’s Sochi, where Russian state-run doping allegedly was rampant.
Sydney (2000) was the first Olympics where athletes underwent random, out-of-competition drug tests in addition to the standard post-performance ones, and also the first to conduct blood tests in addition to urine tests.
Athletes reacted to the stepped-up policing the way famous con man Frank Abagnale reacted to news that the FBI wished to speak to him: Catch me if you can.
The IOC did: More athletes tested positive for banned substances at the Sydney Games than at any previous Summer Olympics.
You may never play Olympic table tennis, but you can play data visualization. Want to know which two athletes tested positive for antipsychotics? Which baseball Olympians failed drug tests at which games? Which country has had more athletes test positive for banned drugs than any other? Which events have produced the most positive drug tests? Click on the displays to learn more about better living — or at least better athletic performance — through chemistry.