The Future of Sports (and Doping)

Book Talk & Signing with Sports Journalist Mark Johnson
Thursday, October 20 | 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Geisel Library, Seuss Room
This is a free event, but advance reservations are requested. Register now


Mark JohnsonMark Johnson, Revelle ’88, is the author of “Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports.” Triton caught up with him to discuss the recent Russian doping scandal and the future of sports, Olympic or otherwise…

TRITON: Having just written this book, did you find the Russian Olympic doping scandal surprising?

No, it’s not surprising at all. What’s happened with Russia is only an extension of what really took root during the Cold War. East Germany was really the first time a nation had enlisted all of its scientific, economic and political forces behind success in sport. And they really set the standard for high-performance sport medicine that is taken for granted now.

How did sports get so tied up with geopolitics?

Well, it was quite explicit. During the 1976 Olympics, the East Germans and the Soviet Union won more than 200 medals together, and the United States barely cracked 91. And there was a lot of hand-wringing, both in the press and by American politicians, that this was unacceptable because we were being embarrassed by communists. The whole premise of the Cold War was that the communist way was evil and immoral, and yet the evil, immoral nations were succeeding at sports.

We had no singular Olympic organizing body, so the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 put the US Olympic committee in charge of everything. Private enterprises were going to fund our ride back to Olympic greatness. Going into the 1984 games, you have two huge forces with an innate interest in overlooking doping. One, multinational corporations—who do not want to be involved in doping scandals—and then you have enormous nationalistic forces saying: “Do what it takes to win.”

Spitting in the Soup by Mark Johnson
Spitting in the Soup by Mark Johnson, Revelle ’88

How do these recent events come to bear on your book?

One of the themes I look at throughout my book is that the easy interpretation of doping is that it’s “morally degenerate, individual athletes who make bad decisions; and they’re ruining sports for everyone else. If only we could get rid of the guys who cheat, then sport would fall back into the state of ethical, moral and chemical purity. Go back to a ‘Garden of Eden’ state.” Well, that state never existed. The book is really looking at the fact that doping is not an act of an individual athlete: it’s a collective endeavor involving athletes, governing bodies, and fans like us.

So what do you think is the future we’re headed to? Is doping something we’ll end up accepting in sports?

I think the tension will only grow because there does not seem to be, in America, certainly from legislators, any attempt to curb drug use. Our default response when faced with a pathology or even the indignities of aging is “turn to drugs, there’s got to be a drug that can solve this.” It’s advertised on television—you have low sex drive you go get low t-treatment; sexual dysfunction, you can get Viagra; to focus at work or school, you get Adderall. So the pressures to dope—and dope more—are only increasing at the same time that we’re trying to increase pressure on athletes, who are really just a subset of everyone else, not to do what we’ve sanctioned at large.

There’s a researcher there at UC San Diego, Theodore Friedmann, who actually heads the world’s Anti-Doping Agency study group that looks at genetic engineering—that’s the brave new frontier of performance enhancement. Because if someone devises a way to manipulate a malfunctioning gene so that you can remedy some inherited disease, someone else is going to say “Okay, how we can use this therapy to make someone better than well? Use it for athleticism.” Today’s anti-doping structure has built a sort of law-and-order way to get doping out of sports—more surveillance, stricter penalties, greater criminalization of athletes. So what happens when we get to the point when an embryo can be manipulated so that that future child has the tennis playing physique of a Serena Williams, the swimming capacity of a Michael Phelps, the bike-riding capacity of a Lance Armstrong? That kid has no agency in the fact that they are a doped athlete. How do they fit within the law and order structure we have today? That’s something that Friedmann is on the forefront of genetic engineering and research, so it’s good to see that he is researching a lot and it creates unbelievable ethical questions that anti-doping is totally not prepared to confront.

Doping is not an act of an individual athlete: it’s a collective endeavor involving athletes, governing bodies, and fans like us.

That could change the whole nature of sport in general; it could be a completely different arena.

You could make an argument that one of the fundamental tenants of anti-doping is that doping is unfair: the athlete that has the money to get doctors and buy Erythropoietin (EPO–a performance enhancing drug) will have an unfair advantage over the athlete who can’t buy EPO. But you can also say sport is inherently unfair because some people just win the genetic jackpot and higher hematocrit (red blood cell ratio) level. They’ve got naturally more red blood cells, and so they can ride their bike faster and longer than someone who has a lower natural red blood cell count. If we really believe in creating fair play, then we should be administering EPO so that everyone is at 50 percent. You could also make the same argument with genetic engineering: you look at the baseline of all the athletes and their physiological characteristics. Those who basically got screwed by the genetic lottery, we’re going to use genetic engineering to create a truly leveled playing field. It’s purely science fiction, but if you divorce our sort of emotional revulsion of that notion, that’s where you could make an argument that genetic engineering could be used to make a truly level-set playing field.

 It’s so much more than black and white; there’s many facets to it.

That’s why I wrote the book. I knew that most coverage of doping in sports today begins with the premise that “doping is inherently evil. Let’s dig into the dirty details of how these athletes and their handlers evaded the rules and broke the rules.” That’s all really interesting, but it doesn’t address the fact that all that drama comes out of this clash of these new missionaries who are trying to impose this state of purity on sports that is totally alien to its deepest tradition.

You’re local to San Diego—any plans to come back to campus?

I’m there all the time, actually; this book couldn’t have happened without Geisel Library—I basically spent two years in there researching there. Between the Biomedical Library and Geisel, having access to these medical journals online and in print was really invaluable. For example, I wanted to understand how the medical community’s attitude on blood doping changed over time. In 1984, Rolling Stone wrote an article about the US Olympic cycling teams, who had blood doped before the ’84 Olympics, and all of a sudden blood doping turned into a scandal. So I went back to the biomedical library and I started pulling out sport medicine textbooks from the ’70s. What I found was that in the textbook they describe blood doping, not as an immoral doping practice, but simply as a form of sport medicine that would help athletes recover. It talked about blood doping in technical terms: how to administer it safely, what are the dangers if the blood is not stored correctly. After the Olympics, all that sentiment shifts and now doctors were no longer playing the role of simply technician, but moral enforcer. So we’re saying “Oh, we can’t even talk about blood doping because it’s morally wrong and unjust.” So you have medical technicians who are almost turning into priests! It’s a really interesting transition of the role of doctors in sports.

For more information, see Mark Johnson’s book, “Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports or read his Washington Post op-ed.