Athletes Using Performance Enhancers Is Not a New Phenomenon

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

In 15 big-league seasons in the late 1800s, pitcher James "Pud" Galvin won an astounding 364 games and completed an even more astonishing 646. He was considered so effective that he was said to reduce opposing batters to "pudding" (hence his nickname).

The secret of Galvin's success? It may have been something called the Brown-Sequard elixir, an injectable concoction consisting of glycerin and . . . ground-up animal testicles.

Galvin, in other words, may have been baseball's first known "juicer." Decades before anyone had heard of anabolic steroids, Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, Galvin was enhancing his performance -- or trying to -- through something other than raw skill and training, in this case by shooting up testosterone derived from guinea pigs and dogs.

As wacky as Galvin's method may have been, his story fits a larger historical pattern. With baseball's long summer stretch approaching, and steroid scandals unabated, it pays to remember that the sport's search for chemically induced glory isn't particularly new. Indeed, as long as there have been athletes, there have been athletes who've sought to drink, eat, smoke, inject, snort or otherwise ingest potions they believed would make them run faster, hit farther or jump higher.

In perhaps the earliest instance of a performance-enhancing substance, ancient Olympians sought a testosterone kick (much like Galvin) by consuming sheep testicles. A physician of the era, Galen, advised Olympians to consume "the rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil, and flavored with rose hips and rose petals."

European cyclists of the late 1800s drank alcohol mixed with caffeine and strychnine, a poison thought to be a stimulant at low doses. The winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon, an American named Thomas Hicks, was revived near the finish by drinking a combination of brandy, egg whites and strychnine. Early baseball players, who didn't get paid unless they played, medicated their aches with the most widely available balm of the day, alcohol.

In fact, baseball cheats of an earlier age weren't secretive about their performance-enhancing habits, and weren't even considered cheats. Galvin was lauded for his drug of choice; The Washington Post wrote after one game in 1889: "If there still be doubting Thomases who concede no virtue of the elixir, they are respectfully referred to Galvin's record in yesterday's Boston-Pittsburgh game. It is the best proof yet furnished of the value of the discovery."

"They would try anything," says Roger I. Abrams, a law professor and baseball fan who unearthed Galvin's regimen in his recent book, "The Dark Side of the Diamond: Gambling, Violence, Drugs and Alcoholism in the National Pastime." "You certainly can never say this is a purely modern phenomenon because it's gone on as long as there were sports. . . . There's something innate about our desire to improve our performance by whatever means are available."

In his 1992 book "Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport," John Hoberman lays out a startling list of substances that athletes in the 1920s and '30s thought to be beneficial: glucose, vitamin B1, calcium, phosphates, ultraviolet light, kola nuts, Benzedrine, nitroglycerin, ammonium chloride, cocaine, digitalis and animal gland extracts, among others.

"It was junk," says Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas. "It was not effective. But the fact that people wanted to believe it worked is the same as today. It's not as if the mind-set of elite athletes has undergone a sea change in the past 100 years. It's just that effective drugs weren't available" back then.

For at least a couple of generations, the modern athletic toolkit included amphetamines (for their stimulative effects), steroids (for muscle-building and faster rehabilitation from injury), diuretics (for masking steroid use) and human blood ("blood doping" can aid cardiovascular performance). To these have more recently been added beta-blockers (which slow the heart rate and thus are useful for such athletes as archers and shooters) and synthesized human growth hormone (for building strength).

If anything, the modern steroid-addled baseball players are late to the performance-enhancing party. Synthetic steroids were first developed by European scientists in the 1930s; the first reported use of them by athletes was in the 1950s, when weightlifters and wrestlers discovered their muscle-building benefits, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon. Soon, track athletes from the West (particularly sprinters and throwers) began using them as pressure to keep up with the Soviet and East German athletes increased, leading to the first Olympic drug tests in 1968.

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