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We've brought secret weapons nobody else has even thought about," boasted U.S. Davis Cup Captain David Freed as he arrived with his tennis team in Australia last week. "Why, we have more dope and pills than anyone on earth." When reporters' eyebrows rose, Captain Freed hastily explained that the pills he referred to were all harmless. Nevertheless, his boast sent reporters' memories back to last summer's Olympics, when a Danish cyclist named Knud Jensen collapsed, apparently of sunstroke, near the end of a 62-mile road race. Within a few hours he was dead. Subsequently, his trainer admitted giving him Roniacol, a form of nicotinic acid that is used by doctors to aid circulation in elderly people suffering from arteriosclerosis. Roniacol works, loosely speaking, by dilating the vessels that carry the blood through the body. "Assuming that a cyclist's muscle power depends on good circulation in the limbs," says a medical specialist, "Jensen's trainer may have felt the drug would enable him to pedal harder and faster. Unfortunately, the blood-vessel-dilating effect of the drug, added to the natural dilating effect of the exercise, probably overloaded the cyclist's heart so much that he went into shock—a state that can cause death."
Jensen's death was a sharp and tragic fact in a clouded pool of rumors concerning the use of drugs in sport. Those rumors have grown steadily more widespread since 1957, when Dr. Herbert Berger, then chairman of the New York State Medical Society's committee on narcotics, charged that many athletes were dosing themselves with amphetamine (a drug commonly trademarked under the names Benzedrine and Dexedrine) to improve their performance.
Predictably, the sports world reacted to this charge with angry denials. Nonetheless, as time passed, Dr. Berger's assertions began to receive considerable support. A former high school basketball coach in Ashland, Ohio declared he had been giving Dexedrine tablets to key players for years and that such pills were in common use in colleges and high schools throughout the country. (The coach had been forced to resign after one of his players suffered a nervous breakdown.) Bruno Banducci, a onetime all-league guard in the National Football League who switched to Canadian football, admitted he had taken Benzedrine. "I could play through the whole game," he said, "and not get tired." His teammate Tom Dublinski said he had taken Benzedrine, too, but not for several years. "They hopped me up too much," he said. "That's no good. A quarterback has to be steady." And in Australia, a former Olympic swimmer cheerfully announced that some of her country's top athletes told her they took such stimulants regularly.
Three years ago, under the aegis of the American Medical Association, Research Anesthesiologist Gene Smith and Dr. Henry Beecher, a physician, both of Harvard, undertook the task of clarifying this chaos of accusations, denials and admissions by conducting a series of controlled experiments. Completed last year, their investigation established one claim clearly as fact: athletic performances can be measurably improved by the use of amphetamines—the "pep pills" of the jazz musicians, the "bennies" of the kick-seeking beatniks, who sometimes eat them by the handful like popcorn or peanuts.
The Smith-Beecher study tested 57 swimmers, runners and weight throwers (athletes whose performances are easily measurable in terms of time and distance). Sometimes these men were given 14 mg. of amphetamine per 70 kg. (154 pounds) of body weight two to three hours before competing. At other times they were given placebos (harmless sugar pills) and sedatives (secobarbital) to discount the effect of autosuggestion. The results showed that, in about three-quarters of the cases tested, the athletes performed better under the influence of amphetamine than placebo. Predictably, the results also showed that secobarbital, in large enough doses, generally impaired their performance. The degree of improvement under amphetamine was as much as 4% for weightthrowers, 1�% for runners and 1.16% for swimmers—percentages, reported the AMA's special committee on amphetamines, equivalent to the improvement athletes might spend months in achieving without the drugs. In terms of records, these figures indicate that amphetamines could take 3.6 seconds off the time of a four-minute miler.
A few months later, in an amphetamine study of his own patterned on the Smith-Beecher experiments, Dr. Peter Karpovich, research professor of physiology at Springfield (Mass.) College, found that the results he obtained on swimmers and weight throwers substantiated the Harvard study, but those on runners generally did not. On one occasion Dr. Karpovich discovered the track men being tested actually ran slower on amphetamines. All of which would seem to indicate that while bennies are sometimes effective, they are not completely reliable as aids to performance.
The grab bag
But, one might ask, if pep pills do any good at all, why shouldn't everybody take them? The answer, of course, is that, like most specifically effective medicines, amphetamines, which work by stimulating the central nervous system to reduce the sense of fatigue and despair, can be highly dangerous unless their use is medically supervised.
"They are quite useful," says Dr. Berger, "in the treatment of persons who suffer from depression. But a normal person taking the drug without a doctor's advice can be elevated to a hyperexcited level. He doesn't get tired, he thinks he's witty and he feels, probably quite rightly, that he has a great deal of strength. If he tends to be a person who is hyperexcited to begin with, the drug can make him go berserk." There are other dangers as well. Since these drugs quicken the heart and raise the blood pressure, physicians must make certain the cardiovascular system is normal, or the subject may overstrain himself without knowing it, at the risk of serious illness or even death. "Also," Dr.Berger goes on, "amphetamines are an appetite depressant and, in the case of growing adolescents, there is the chance of malnutrition. Moreover, there is the possibility of habituation, of the subject feeling unable to function without the drug. Finally, after taking amphetamines for several days to 'keep going' there is the danger of complete collapse because the subject loses his awareness of normal fatigue and pushes his body beyond its capabilities."
In view of the peril inherent in their indiscriminate use, pep pills are absurdly easy to get. Although they are sold at retail only on prescription, any person (of any age) can write a pharmaceutical jobber or wholesale house, give a name that sounds like a legitimate drug store, include the cash and wait for the pills to arrive. "The law," says Dr. Berger, "provides safety measures only against the retail sale of drugs."