Doping in This Sporting Life

How widespread was the use of stimulants in sport during the mid-20th century?

‘Christ man,’ he says. ‘You’ve broken your front teeth…’
‘It feels numb,’ I tell him when his thumbs drop the flap down. ‘I’ll go back on in a minute…’
I’ve time for one burst. The effect of the benzedrine’s already worn off.

Arthur Machin, the rugby league playing protagonist of David Storey’s This Sporting Life, struggling to plough on after being smashed in the jaw from a shoulder charge. The benzedrine that had worn off was a performance enhancing drug — amphetamine. This Sporting Life was first published in 1960. Had this been today, Machin could be served with a two-year ban from the game for doping.

Doubtlessly drawn on Storey’s own experiences of being a professional rugby league player at Leeds, the use of speed in team sports appears to be clear. Players in Everton’s title winning side of 1962–63 were accused of regularly taking the drug in an investigation by the Sunday People in 1964. And the surprise winners of the 1954 Fifa World Cup, West Germany, were injected with methamphetamine leading up to the finals. Well, at least the players who were compliant.

Even a young and unwell Richard Harris, who would later play Machin in Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 big screen adaption of the book, was, according to a biography of the actor by Michael Feeney Callan, administered benzedrine to ‘revive’ him in preparation for the 1952 Munster Juniors Cup rugby match. Harris would soon be diagnosed with tuberculosis (unrelated to the drug).

By the mid-1960s, more stringent drug testing saw the disqualification of several cyclists in the Tour of Britain. Traces of ephedrine were found in the urine samples of three members of the West Germany squad for the 1966 Fifa World Cup, although the results were deemed to be residual amounts from a likely cold cure — highlighting, perhaps, the efficacy of contemporary controls.

Amphetamines were widely used by British and German troops during the Second World War, so the positive effects of the drug were likely to be well-known in some quarters, and perhaps this filtered through to sport by the 1950s. The question is how widespread was its use back then? Was it just among certain elite organisations or a tiny, disparate number of cheaters? Or was speed a contemporary pick me up of the masses?

Take amateur sport today, for example. It is likely in physically demanding sports such as football and rugby, that many recreational players take some kind of stimulant to get them through the game. Maybe fat burners, which tend to contain a powerful hit of caffeine.

But some fat burners contain more potent stimulants. Martin Gleeson, a professional, fell foul of this in 2011 when he was advised, erroneously, that a consumer product called OxyElite Pro was safe to take. It wasn’t. This fat burner contained dimethylamylamine (DMAA), a then recently banned substance. Gleeson subsequently failed a drug test and forced to serve a ban.

Like those consumer cold cures containing ephedrine in the mid-20th century, DMAA was also used in some nasal decongestants until the 1980s. Today some consumer fat burners promoted under the label T5 also include ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, which is listed on Wada’s banned list.

As far as the authorities are concerned there is no excuse. Whether conscious to it or not, doping is doping, and doping is cheating. However, I wonder whether Machin’s use of benzedrine was directed by his club as part of an institutional doping program, or like the T5s of this world, was widely available and widely used as a pre-workout, pre-game pick me up.