SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
June 30, 1969
Be it pick-me-ups or let-me-downs, build-me-ups or lie-me-downs, they can all be found in medicine's little black bag for sportsmen. it is into this bag?and into the dangerous world of drugs?that athletes plunge when they search for... SOMETHING EXTRA ON THE BALL
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June 30, 1969

Something Extra On The Ball

Be it pick-me-ups or let-me-downs, build-me-ups or lie-me-downs, they can all be found in medicine's little black bag for sportsmen. it is into this bag?and into the dangerous world of drugs?that athletes plunge when they search for... SOMETHING EXTRA ON THE BALL

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" 'Where's the Dexamyl, Doc?' I yelled at the trainer rooting about in his leather valise," pitcher-author Jim Brosnan quoted himself as saying in his celebrated baseball book, Pennant Race. " 'There's nothing in here but phenobarbital and that kind of stuff.'

" 'I don't have any more,' said Doc Rohde. 'Gave out the last one yesterday. Get more when we get home.'

" 'Been a rough road trip, huh, Doc? How'm I goin' to get through the day then? Order some more, Doc. It looks like a long season.'

" 'Try one of these,' he said.

" 'Geez, that's got opium in it. Whaddya think I am, an addict or something?' "

An addict or something? It isn't the worst question in the world, though the word addict has an opium, cocaine, speed, heroin whiff to it that is not normally associated with the pills and shots that an athlete uses to bolster his physical condition or morale in the name of victory, a payday, or both. The difference is that addicts, in the normal usage of the word, take drugs because their systems are dependent on them, while athletes take them for a more specific purpose. Their goal is performance, but their quest for performance has led them deep into the wonders of the pharmacy. What do you find if you dig into the medicine cabinet of sport? Who is taking what and why? The answer is that most athletes are taking something, and probably not getting quite the results they think.

Essentially, the drugs used by athletes can be broken down into two categories—restorative and additive. Restorative drugs are those used by athletes who for one reason or another—illness, injury, pain, nervousness, sloth, gluttony, dissipation—are incapacitated. The drugs are given with the intent to restore, at least partly, the competitor's normal prowess. Painkillers, tranquilizers, barbiturates, anti-inflammants, enzymes and muscle relaxers are all restorative drugs commonly used in sports.

Additive drugs—a more controversial group—are used with the motive of stimulating performance beyond the natural limits, e.g., in the hope of making a man who has never run better than a four-minute mile cover the distance in 3.59 or even 3:55. For obvious reasons, additive drugs raise more legal, ethical and regulatory questions than do the restoratives. They are also physiologically controversial, since there is some scientific doubt as to whether there is such a thing as a truly additive drug. The athletic Establishment, however, is generally convinced that additive drugs do exist and, in this belief, uses compounds that stimulate the nervous system, affect muscle tissue and alter the personality.

Given the variety of drugs now available and the inclination of athletes to experiment with them, it is all but impossible to compile a definitive list of drugs that have been used in sports for restorative or additive purposes. Also, because of the speed with which drug information is passed among athletes, drug use cannot be neatly cataloged as to sport, e.g., alcohol for archery, Benzedrine for basketball, cocaine for crew, etc. Athletic pharmaceutical practices are, so to speak, interdisciplinary, and perhaps the only orderly way to survey athletic drug usage and the effects of drugs on sport is to examine half a dozen or so drug families now popular.

A reasonable place to begin is with the additives, the best-known of which are the amphetamines, a group of synthetic drugs that are chemically similar to adrenalin and are often referred to as pep pills. On good evidence—which includes voluntary admissions by physicians, trainers, coaches, athletes, testimony given in court or before athletic regulatory bodies, and autopsy reports—amphetamines have been used in auto racing, basketball, baseball (at all levels down to children's leagues), boxing, canoeing, cycling, football, golf, mountain climbing, Roller Derby, rodeo, Rugby, skating, skiing, soccer, squash, swimming, tennis (both lawn and table), track and field, weight lifting and wrestling. The amphetamines, of which Benzedrine, Dexedrine, Dexamyl (which has a barbiturate added) and methamphetamine (the notorious "speed" or "Meth"), are among the best-known, affect the central nervous system and produce what might be called a triple threat. They act indirectly to suppress hunger spasms, and for this reason are used as appetite-killing pills by jockeys, boxers, wrestlers and anybody else who has to make a weight. The drug is a metabolic stimulant, speeding up the respiratory and circulatory systems and enabling users to remain hyperactive when they would ordinarily slow down because of fatigue. Finally, the amphetamines act directly on the brain, inducing a sense of excitement and euphoria, a sort of I-can-lick-the-world high.

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