- Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960–2008
When I received the invitation to write this review I once again ignored my inability to work fast and accepted the task adding to an already long list of behind schedule obligations. The “job” to read a book and write a review would be a most welcome oasis in the maelstrom of trivialities. Perhaps because I subconsciously perceived that another doping book would not add much to what I had already learned from a pile of other books on the topic, I did not get to it before this task had also become overdue. When I finally began the reading of Drug Games, however, it was a real treat.
It is true that numerous doping books have been published since all hell broke loose over massive doping revelations in the lead up to the Tour de France 1998. Scholars from a host of disciplines have applied multiple perspectives and focused on different sports and countries. Thus, it is impossible to write a meaningful book on doping anymore that does not recap a lot of facts familiar to readers with a scholarly interest in the field. In that respect Drug Games is no exception. Still it has a lot to offer.
The author has traveled to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) archives in the U.S. and Europe and dug out information that shed light on the rationale behind the IOC and its various presidents’ shifting attitudes and responses to the doping challenge. Thus it adds depth to existing knowledge. Throughout the book this source-based information is assessed in the context of broader social and political developments. This straightforward strategy works well in that it cuts down the main characters of the Olympic history to ordinary human size. There are no heroes or villains in Drug Games, just ordinary albeit highly influential sports leaders who sometimes naïvely other times providently respond to challenges from the outside world with the intent to do what they think is in the best interest of the Olympic movement.
Hunt attempts to uncover the evolution of the IOC’s anti-doping policy from the late 1950s to the current regime led by the World Anti-Doping Agency. This ambition could have easily resulted in a tedious presentation of facts and quotations from the archive material. However, Hunt is obviously blessed with a precious talent for writing. Familiar Olympic names such as the head of the Medical Commission Prince de Merode, Juan Antonio Samaranch, and Dick Pound—commonly presented in the literature as mere labels for certain viewpoints—come to life as persons and seem to stand up from the pages and present their arguments to the reader.
Drug Games is an exhilarating read. It is beautifully written, well researched, and rigorously structured. The length of each chapter and the information provided is perfectly balanced. The reader gets exactly the information needed for the narrative to progress efficiently at high speed without being sketchy. Academic books so masterly orchestrated are few and far between. The reason for this may be that ability to write so well is unusual, but it could also be due to the fact that reality is multifaceted and complex. This means the [End Page 350] efficient narrative structure demands a higher degree of reductionism, which many academics fear and want to avoid. To give an example of the catch: the book begins with the dramatic story about the fatal collapse of the Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen at the 1960 Rome Olympics 100 km team time trial event. Hunt notes, “The relatively mild temperatures that Friday and suspiciously similar collapses by two of Jensen’s teammates, however, raised questions among those who followed the event. Alberto Oberholzer . . . noted that it ‘seemed strange’ that only the Danes experienced difficulty with the heat” (p. 6). The source of this information is an article in the New York Times from 1960. The discrepancy in the quotation between...