First Olympic doping incident involved Americans

U.S. athletes caught using steroids in 1964

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Tom Ecker, correspondent

Editor’s note: Tom Ecker of Cedar Rapids is an Olympic historian. 

RIO DE JANEIRO — When we learned recently there will be no Russian entries in this year’s Olympic track and field events because of large-scale drug abuse, it brought back memories of doping incidents in previous Olympics.

At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, it was discovered many athletes were taking anabolic-androgenic steroids, the synthetic drugs are now known simply as steroids. But the athletes who used them were not Russians or East Germans, as had often been alleged. They were Americans. An American doctor, John B. Ziegler, initiated the manufacturing of the first commercially produced steroid products, and it was American athletes who used them in 1964.

At that time, the Russians and East Germans still were using pure testosterone, which had positive athletic effects, but negative and often dangerous side effects.

But to be fair to the doctors and athletes who were involved with steroids in the 1960s, the use of anabolic steroids or testosterone to improve sports performances would not be ruled illegal in the Olympics until 1975.

Since the introduction of steroids to the sports scene, there have been many other drugs placed on the banned list, including amphetamines and human growth hormone. And there are even drugs designed to mask the use of other banned substances. As soon as one drug emerges and is ultimately banned, a new drug surfaces.

It seems to be never-ending.

Earlier I wrote that strychnine was the surprising drug of choice for one marathoner in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, strychnine made a comeback. Chinese volleyball player Wu Dan tested positive for strychnine and was disqualified from further competition. She claimed she had taken a popular Chinese “folk medicine” and did not know it contained any banned substances.

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