At the opposite end of the drug spectrum from the active amphetamines are the passive tranquilizers, the calming, relaxing drugs of which Miltown, that favorite of Hollywood gagmen, is far and away the best known. These are the high-powered executive's drugs, the ulcer-defeating palliatives of the high-tension age. They work by reducing the sensitivity of the nervous system, thus allowing the individual to withstand pressures that might otherwise emotionally incapacitate him. Obviously, their place in sports is limited—since most athletes need pepping up, not slowing down—but they have their advocates. Several seasons ago Reno Bertoia, then of the Detroit Tigers, who had hit a resounding .182 the year before, found himself leading both leagues after two months of play with a .397 average. Since he was taking tranquilizers for other reasons, he attributed his sudden success to the pills. A short time later, however, his batting average dropped toward .200 again. "Now," moaned Reno, "everyone says that I'm over-tranquilized."
Between the two extremes of amphetamines and tranquilizers is a whole physiological and psychological grab bag of artificial aids to athletic performance that includes everything from drugs, oxygen and vitamins to sugars, wheat-germ oil and hypnotic trances. The best that can be said for many of them is that they frequently inspire the athlete, as in the case of Reno Bertoia, to greater efforts through autosuggestion. "You can give a man a sugar pill," declares one doctor, "and tell him it will enable him to run faster, and if he runs a good race he swears by that pill from then on."
Some coaches and trainers are convinced of the winning ways of plain oxygen. The U.S. Olympic championship hockey team credited its victory at Squaw Valley in large part to the inhalation of pure oxygen. Doctors, for the most part, scoff at any such claims. "The body does not store up oxygen," the AMA Journal says, "and since the effect of oxygen-inhalation wears off in about three minutes, no benefits can be anticipated involving prolonged exertion. Inhalation immediately before short track sprints and short swimming races (in which breath-holding is a factor) may be of limited value, but these benefits probably can be obtained by forced deep-breathing of ordinary air." The reason why breath-holding is of value, points out Dr. Karpovich, is that "it tenses the athlete's muscles and allows him to exert more power."
For years the favorite drug of Europe's bike riders (called by many the most drug-ridden group in the world) has been cocaine. A powerful, quick-acting drug that is capable of producing an addiction as difficult to break as that of heroin, cocaine is derived from the coca leaf, a shrub indigenous to Bolivia and Peru. Unlike most narcotics (e.g., morphine, heroin), which act as sedatives tending to depress the spirit, a moderate dose of cocaine actually stimulates the central nervous system, accelerating the respiratory and circulatory rates. On taking it, either by "sniffing" or hypodermically, a cyclist feels he has great energy; he frequently sprints to the head of the pack just to show what a fine, strong fellow he is. The South American Indians who habitually chew the leaf are known for their tremendous feats of endurance—and, it should be noted, for their short life spans. Similarly, toreros fatigued by an afternoon of facing angry bulls find that cocaine restores their confidence when they depart in the evening to face an eager lady love. Doctors doubt that anybody is really the better in any way for the use of cocaine, but there is no doubt that many bicycle riders and bullfighters think they are.
Behind the belief of athletes in medications, most doctors believe, is a kind of wishful thinking that there must be a magical way of improving performance. Self-dosing athletes are, in short, like horseplayers in search of a system. "Many of our topflight people," comments Dr. Allan Ryan, chairman of the AMA's sports medicine committee, "tend, in a mild way, to be victims of compulsion neurosis. If a man wins a swimming race after rubbing a rabbit's foot for luck, he probably keeps on rubbing it. The rabbit's foot becomes a magic amulet. In a sense, this drug business is something out of our childhood. One of our youthful heroes was Popeye, who used to say, 'I am what I am,' but placed his reliance on spinach."
Such childlike faith was apparent in Rome last summer, for instance, when a drugstore in the Olympic Village, whose customers were some of the finest physical specimens in the world, managed to sell 14,000 bottles of vitamin pills in a single week. This despite the AMA's flat assertion that there is not an iota of reasonable evidence to indicate vitamins can help an athlete's performance.
The search for a magic amulet is an old story. Twenty years ago, one university physician recalls, an immobilized halfback, the star of the team, hobbled into his office and cajoled him into administering the pain-killing drug novocain to anesthetize a sprained ankle. The halfback played, but poorly. "My God," he said when he was removed from the game, "I didn't know whether my foot was on top of the ground, below the ground or in the ground!" What's more, the physician adds, the man aggravated the sprain so much he missed the next three games. Novocain has a counterpart for today's athlete in the pain-killing Butazolidin, an analgesic legally (in some states) administered to race horses to permit them to run on sore limbs.
The Texas A&M football team at one time was dosed with a vitamin capsule trademarked C.V.P., which was supposed to soften the effects of bumps and bruises. C.V.P., a bioflavonoid compound made from citrus peel and juices with vitamin C added, acts "to thicken the substance of capillary walls" and thus retard hemorrhaging. Similarly, at the Olympics last summer, boxers took Varidase tablets (a combination of two enzymes, streptokinase and streptodornase) to lessen blood clotting and hasten healing.
Just how widely drugs and stimulants are used in competitive sports is anybody's guess. In connection with the amphetamine study made by Smith and Beecher, the AMA's special committee on amphetamines sent out questionnaires to some 1,800 college and high school coaches asking whether they used the drug. Only 1% of those answering admitted that they did, and the AMA committee declared that "the actual use of amphetamine-type drugs in athletics is relatively rare." But Dr. Joseph Wolffe, vice-president of the International Federation of Sports Medicine, believes, like many other authorities, that the use of amphetamines is far more prevalent than the survey indicated. "It is only natural," he says, "that athletes, like most individuals, should look for ways to improve themselves." And who is to say what ways are ethical and what are not?
Caffein, Dr. Wolffe points out, is a stimulant that can be taken by any athlete without criticism in the form of a cup of coffee. Yet three cups of strong coffee contain at least 5 grains of caffein—a highly effective dose. And cola drinks, which contain both caffein and sugar, are not only permissible, but are frequently advocated by athletic coaches and trainers.