I’ve always been a big fan of popular science, popular history, popular economics and so on. Essentially, if it’s a topic area I’m not expert in, I appreciate a good story teller taking me on a guided tour through the subject matter. The biggest drawback of these popularised accounts is that they’re very easy to bias. When you tell emotive stories in an area the reader doesn’t have the knowledge capital required for critical analysis, you can info-tain them in any direction you chose. When it comes to drugs in sport, providing a balanced popularisation that is readable, interesting, and thought provoking requires not only great story telling skills, but also a deep understanding of sports, psychology, politics, and culture. Mark Johnson provides this balanced view with his book Spitting in the Soup.
The book begins just before the beginning of the modern Olympic games when the industrial revolution, increased population, and advances in transport and communication technology combined to grow sports from localised amateur events to fully professional spectacles. While sports and doping in some form have likely been around since the beginning of competition, it really didn’t reach critical mass until this time. What interested me most about this exploration of doping history were the early attitudes towards performance enhancement – it was openly encouraged. Indeed, a competitor was expected to use whatever means they could to do their best, anything less was admonished. If you did something to yourself, or another competitor, that impaired their performance however, that was the real crime. The term “doping” came from the practice of drugging horses so they didn’t perform well – there’s a reason that Dopey wasn’t represented as the best performing of the seven dwarfs.
The book shows how performance enhancement became a crime, both in the legal sense and in the public consciousness, through a convoluted series events and is a great example of zeitgeist manipulation, something like the changes in social attitudes towards women voting, mixed race marriages, and smoking. The author does an excellent job of pulling together the work of social and other researchers to explore the myth and reality of this change. The stories you’ve undoubtedly heard about all of those young cyclists somewhere in Europe mysteriously dying after taking EPO, well they’re probably fake. Not just embellishments, but genuine old wive’s tales, and those stories aren’t the only ones in that category. Mark Johnson will have you questioning your critical thinking skills in this book.
While BNA is a cycling website, this isn’t a book about cycling (although Mark Johnson has written just about cycling before in Argyle Armada: Behind the Scenes of the Pro Cycling Life). Sure, cycling has had its share of doping controversy, but there are only so many books you can read about Lance and US Postal before you’re numb. Thankfully I think Lance is only mentioned once in Spitting in the Soup; in the world of drug taking for performance enhancement, Lance is only a one character. A single Texan is nothing compared to state level Olympic doping programs where athletes were (and are?) pawns in the game of politics and anti-doping programs are used to test whether athletes will fail the tests, not whether they dope or not. I was only vaguely aware of how the cold war was played out on the sports field, this book reveals a story that Tom Clancy would have wished he could write.
The author has subtitled his book “Inside the dirty game of doping in sports” and isn’t referring to the doping being dirty, but rather the “game” of doping. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Johnson takes great pains not to come out in favour of or against doping. He presents both sides of the doping argument without judgement. One of the pro-doping arguments put forward is the “equal playing field” argument, and I’m not talking about the “everyone’s doing it” version. Rather, elite athletes are elite due to their genetic gifts – they’re taller, or have more lung capacity, or can build muscle mass more easily, and is that really fair? Someone with a natural hemocrit of 54 would be expected to do better in road cycling than someone with a natural hematocrit of 39, if all other things were equal. What’s wrong with using drugs to put both athletes at the higher hematocrit level? For a healthy person, EPO has no likely negative side effects, so why not use it, under supervision, to level the playing field? Isn’t that what sport is meant to be about? Isn’t that fairness?
I think the only thing Spitting in the Soup lacks is a discussion on the evolving nature of doping. What is considered legal now may not be next month (as the recent tennis doping scandal highlights), and what is now illegal may soon be legal. Imagine if caffeine was illegal for sports, as it once (sort of) was? I don’t think cycling would survive that. After reading Spitting in the Soup I’m keen to learn more about the behind the scenes machinations of what is considered doping and what isn’t. How do drugs get on or off the list? Taking it further, how do they decide that a certain piece of equipment is good or bad (I’m thinking Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman’s hour records here)? Why is one technique allowed and another outlawed in some sports? I realise that Spitting in the Soup, which clocks in at 416 pages, can’t go into everything, but I’d eagerly buy a followup book to this one from this author.
Apart from that, I only had two little quibbles with this book. The first was a few very sloppy editing errors in the text which resulted in repeated passages which were often interleaved with subsequent text. This could have been due to my reading a review copy of the book, or it could have been deliberate fingerprinting designed to track down the perpetrator of any online pirating of the text, which was heavily DRM’d to start with. I suspect it will be fixed in the print version, but if the publishers did go to the effort of introducing this annoyance, I can at least acknowledge that I was annoyed.
My second quibble surrounds the repeated and unnecessary use of the phrase “spitting in the soup” throughout the book. Yes, it’s the book’s title and yes, it’s eye catching, but there’s no need to use the phrase repeatedly unless it’s relevant; most of the times it was used in the book felt very artificial.
If you’ve skipped to the end of the review to work out whether it’s worth buying and reading or not, the answer is “yes”. It’s readable, it’s compelling, it’s thought provoking. If this ever comes out as an audiobook, I’ll be “reading” it again. In the meantime, the references sited in Spitting in the Soup has given me a reading list on the topic to pursue. The issue of drugs in sport is a lot deeper than I thought and there are ideas I want to explore further. I think you’ll find the same thing.
You can read other reviews of this book, or have a read of a sample chapter, by visiting the publisher’s website: Velopress.