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Down in the basement of aging McArthur Court, the University of Oregon gymnasium in Eugene, the air one afternoon last winter was redolent of Eau de Sport, that venerable mixture of aromas—wet wool, steam, liniment, sweat, rubbing alcohol—that defines athletic exertion. It issued even from the wainscoting and the floors of the old structure. In the training room Alberto Salazar, 22, an Oregon senior and one of America's premier distance runners, sat on a table applying to his knee a colorless fluid that may change the smell of sports permanently.
The new odor, a commingling of the vapors of turpentine, rotten eggs and old oysters, comes from dimethyl sulfoxide, better known as DMSO, the controversial and often illegally used drug hailed by a growing legion of amateur and professional athletes who view it as a panacea for many ills ranging from sprained ankles to tendinitis and ripped muscles.
Having washed his knee carefully, Salazar, winner of last year's New York Marathon and holder of the American indoor record for 5,000 meters, began to roll a cotton swab soaked in DMSO over the area. Around him was the paraphernalia of athletic treatment: ice bags, whirlpool bath, an ultrasound machine, tubes of Ben-Gay, bottles of anti-inflammatory pills. Salazar continued to apply the DMSO for 10 minutes or so, the stink becoming nearly unbearable. Almost as fast as he gently rolled on the stuff, it disappeared, soaking into his skin.
Finally he stopped and encased the knee in Saran Wrap and an elastic bandage. "I used to go the usual route when I got a strain or a sprain," he said, "ice, ultrasound, acupuncture, whirlpool, massage, heat. But I've been using DMSO for about three years now, and it's the answer. A strain like this used to keep me from training for four or five days, but with DMSO I can run full strength again in 24 to 48 hours. That's important when you're peaking for a race." The Millrose Games were just a few weeks away and Salazar would go on to set the record for 5,000 meters there.
"A lot of runners use it," he continued. "Every top competitor I've ever met has used DMSO at one time or another. A lot of guys mix it with cortisone for knee problems, or with liniment. I used to do that, but I find just plain DMSO works fine."
A weightlifter, an Everest of muscle, walks by holding his nose. "Whew! Smells like a bad restaurant in here."
Salazar smiles. "Some weightlifters use DMSO, too," he goes on, "as well as people on the football team. But it is fickle stuff. Sometimes I get immediate relief and other times it doesn't seem to work at all on a similar problem. It's mysterious. All except for the smell. It always gives you a body odor and terrible breath. But I don't notice it too much anymore. I guess other people do."
All over the country athletes say they are getting results with DMSO. Some Dallas Cowboys and some Rams and Raiders use it, but under the guise of what an NFL spokesman calls "experimentation." Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda soaks his fingers in it to relieve the pain of arthritis, as do the Orioles' Jim Palmer and Portland State's prospective high NFL draft choice, Quarterback Neil Lomax. But not all athletes are so certain DMSO is beneficial.
Yankee Outfielder Lou Piniella says, "I used it and it took three days to heal a bruise on my thigh, which is about the same as the whirlpool and other treatment. It's nothing special."
Others are naturally careful about unapproved medication, like the Orioles' Doug DeCinces. "They use it on horses," he says. "Horses only compete for three or four years. I want this body to last a lot longer than that. I've got a bad back. Do they know what it does to the liver?"