The dope culture of modern sports

Monday Book Review

September 14, 1992|By David Holahan

MORTAL ENGINES: THE SCIENCE OF PERFORMANCES AN THE DEHUMANIZATION OF SPORT. By John M. Hoberman. The Free Press. 350 pages. $24.95. IN 1889, a distinguished physiologist with the improbable name of Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard revealed to a stunned gathering of the Societe de Biologie in Paris that for 25 years he had been injecting himself with a liquid extract derived from the testicles of dogs and guinea pigs.

Among the effects he ascribed to his peculiar regimen were: increases in both his physical and intellectual energy, relief of constipation and -- most impressive for a man of 72 -- a lengthening of the urine arc.

A century ago sports were nothing like the ubiquitous institution they are today, but scientists interested in maximizing human potential -- on the field of battle and in the workplace -- were already turning to athletes as likely guinea pigs in the study of performance-enhancing techniques. As athletics have evolved into a big business and the stuff of national pride, science and technology have been harnessed to serve the cause of higher, faster and farther.

Author John Hoberman meticulously chronicles the history of "scientific sport," documenting the widespread abuses and dangers of illegal drugs like anabolic steroids. Many Americans are familiar with the untimely death of football star and steroid abuser Lyle Alzado, the disgrace of Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson and the trials (both athletic and legal) of Olympic hopeful Butch Reynolds.

But most readers will probably be surprised to learn: "In the course of 1987 and 1988 alone 18 Dutch and Belgian cyclists, including one woman, died from unknown reasons. It is widely assumed that some or all of them were taking super-doses of artificially produced erythropoietin, a natural hormone that stimulates the formation of red blood cells." The source for this remarkable statistic (the book is heavily footnoted) is Der Spiegel, the German magazine.

Author Hoberman confesses early on to first-hand knowledge of the sometimes fatal ambition that afflicts modern athletes. As a competitive runner of "modest ability," he once tried to artificially improve his times via an amino acid powder: "Whether I paused to reflect if this was licit or illicit behavior for an athlete, I cannot remember. In fact, I jumped at this chance to acquire a chemical advantage, paying more money than I could really afford."

Now 47 and a professor of Scandinavian and German languages at the University of Texas, the author has seen the error of his ways. His book, however, is not a diatribe. His interest is in explaining, often in great historic detail, the evolution of the doping culture in sports: from caffeine and ultra-violet treatments to the current obsessions with hormone and steroid regimen. The issues are more complex than "Just say 'no'."

For example, the ambition of athletes is placed in proper perspective. Take a group of professionals whose life expectancy is 22 percent below the national average, who regularly use "beta-blocker" drugs (which are banned in Olympic competition) to control anxiety and other ailments, such as muscle cramps and pinched nerves. Are they the New York Yankees, after George Steinbrenner's return? No, they are orchestra musicians. The author asks, reasonably enough: Why are athletes held to a higher standard?

And there's always the case of Honore de Balzac, the prolific 19th-century French writer who ingested massive doses of coffee on an empty stomach to improve his creativity: "The ideas surge forth like army battalions on the field of battle, and the battle begins."

This book is at its best when it is illuminating the dark corners of modern sport, such as East Germany's pervasive use of steroids -- often on teen-agers and sometimes without their knowledge. Ironically, these East German specialists may have the best information on how effective and how dangerous steroids are.

It's estimated that a sprinter on steroids can gain half a second on the competition. And it is clear that athletes on their own will often risk life and internal organs to get a leg up on the competition.

A word of warning: This book, for all its good points, will expose the general reader to far too much information about the German sports physiological community in the 1920s and 1930s, among other arcana. A hot cup of Joe helps get one through these barren stretches.

David Holahan is a writer living in East Haddam, Conn.

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