Sex, pigeons and vengeful massage therapists

Nikita Lalwani and Sam Winter-Levy

In 1998, after testing positive for high levels of testosterone, the American sprinter Dennis Mitchell blamed the result on alcohol (five beers) and sex (four times the previous night). It was his wife’s birthday, he said. ‘The lady deserved a treat.’ After failing three drugs tests in 2009 and 2010, the Olympic gold medallist LaShawn Merritt attributed the result to a ‘product I used for personal reasons’: the penis-enhancement drug ExtenZe. The Belgian cyclist Björn Leukemans, suspended for doping in 2008, claimed that high levels of testosterone appeared in his urine because drug testers interrupted him having sex with his wife. Anti-doping officials said that no amount of sex could explain the levels of synthetic testosterone in his blood.

If it isn’t sex, it’s food. The Dutch cyclist Adri van der Poel tested positive for a banned substance in 1983. He blamed the racing pigeons his father-in-law had put in a pie. The Czech tennis player Petr Korda tested positive for steroids in 1998. He said he had eaten veal injected with steroids. According to investigators, he would have had to have eaten 40 calves a day for 20 years to account for the steroids in his system. Alberto Contador, testing positive for clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour de France, said he’d eaten steak tainted with the substance. He’d felt ‘morally obliged’ to eat it, because a friend had brought the meat all the way from Spain.

Others have resorted to the classic defence 'it wasn't me'. The sprinter Justin Gatlin said that a ‘vengeful massage therapist’ had spread steroid cream on him after a race in 2006. The Olympic gold medallist Ben Johnson said that someone had spiked his energy drink with stanozolol (he later admitted to doping). After testing positive for cocaine in 1999, the Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor said someone had set him up to make Cuba look bad; Fidel Castro backed him up, accusing the ‘Cuban-American mafia’. (Sotomayor failed another drugs test in 2001.)

In 2002, police stopped the wife of the Lithuanian cyclist Raimondas Rumšas and found enough erythropoietin (EPO), growth hormone and steroids for a whole team. According to Rumšas, she was taking them to her mother. The following year, he tested positive for EPO.

Some haven't known where to turn. When he tested positive for testosterone in 2006, the American cyclist Floyd Landis at first blamed the result on two beers and four shots of whisky. He later said it was down to a bad hip, thyroid medication, or naturally high levels of the hormone. In an interview with Jay Leno in 2006, he said: ‘At this point, I don't know if it’s somehow or some way I ingested something that caused the tests to be that way.’ Four years later, Landis admitted to ingesting testosterone, human growth hormone, EPO, female hormones and insulin throughout his career.

In 2004, the Greek sprinters Konstandinos Kenderis and Ekaterini Thanou staged a motorcycle accident to explain why they’d missed a drug test. But the most outlandish excuse of all may have been the one made by the American cyclist Tyler Hamilton. In 2005, accused of receiving a forbidden blood transfusion, Hamilton said that the foreign blood in his system came from a ‘vanishing twin’ who had died in utero. In 2011, the twin vanished once and for all, as Hamilton admitted to doping.

Read more in the London Review of Books

David Runciman: Everybody gets popped · 22 November 2012

Will Self: Cocaine · 5 November 2015

Iain Sinclair: The Olympics Scam · 19 June 2008

Thomas Jones: Pole-Vaulting · 2 September 2004


  • 9 August 2016 at 4:31pm
    Blackorpheus7 says:
    NBA basketball players routinely earn 20 million dollars a year. Professional soccer (football) players are not far behind. Sports "science" is attached by the hip to the most lucrative enterprise in the globe, and winning is the sine qua non in professional sports and in Olympic competition. Doping, cheating by electronic means, winning under any circumstances, will only become more refined, easier to camouflage, much harder to detect by testing.

  • 9 August 2016 at 6:24pm
    John Cowan says:
    There is every reason not to impose rules which cannot be enforced and will be broken. They breed disrespect for law in all circumstances. And anyway, what's the difference between training at high altitudes to build up red blood cells (or having a naturally high level) and injecting them? Except that the latter is far less expensive.

    Those who worry about the risks (self-assumed, by the way) to athletes should in my opinion strive to ban heading in football and the whole sport of boxing.

    • 10 August 2016 at 1:13am
      Bob Beck says: @ John Cowan
      I agree -- few if any of the arguments against performance-enhancing drugs really hold up to scrutiny. There's the (rather sophomoric) argument from "nature" -- as if sports were "natural". There's the argument from equity -- but athletes from poorer nations may also lack access to the top-level coaching and facilities available to the privileged, or be unable to train full time for lack of state or commercial-sponsor support. And so on.

      Back to athletes producing creative excuses for positive drug tests -- in 1998, the Canadian gold medalist in snowboarding, Ross Reblagiati, was briefly stripped of his medal after a positive test for THC. After an appeal, it was returned to him, on the grounds that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing substance. (Though his win may have provided a data point to the contrary). He blamed the result on "second-hand smoke at a party".