Blood dopes of the 1984 Olympic Games by Les Earnest

Blood transfusions that were unethically administered to U.S. cyclists during the Olympics probably didn’t improve their performance but might have serious medical consequences later.


Originally published in the August 1988 issue of Cyclops USA as part of the article “Coors is safer than tea”.


[Bracketed statements in italics below, such as this, are explanatory remarks added in November 2005.]


In January 1985, it was publicly disclosed that a number of cyclists on the U.S. Olympic Team had taken blood transfusions during the 1984 Olympics in an attempt to improve their performance. This remarkably unethical project was made possible by dishonesty on the part of certain USCF staff members and one officer. After the disclosure, other sports governing bodies scrambled to cover their tails.


In early 1984 I had drafted the first medical control regulations for the United States Cycling Federation (USCF). Up until that time, lists of prohibited substances had been published but procedures for testing and ensuring the integrity of the process had not been formally stated. After the Olympics, I finished writing the drug testing rules and got the USCF Board of Directors to adopt them. However the bloody mess cited above made it clear that there was still more to be dealt with in the field of medical control.


Medical literature on blood boosting goes back about 30 years. The basic idea is fairly simple, though messy. An athlete has blood withdrawn, just as if he were making a blood donation, then the red cells are separated from the rest of the blood and frozen. About two pints are withdrawn at least a month and a half before an important race. The athlete's body will replace this blood in the intervening period then, just before the race, the frozen blood is thawed and re-infused into the athlete so as to elevate his red cell count.


Blood boosting enhances the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, which can increase performance. The medical literature is a bit ambiguous regarding the amount of performance enhancement that results, but most studies involving the infusion of two units of blood or more show some improvement.


Blood boosting has allegedly been used by marathon runners and some other athletes in endurance sports for at least 20 years, including Olympic events. Marathon runner Lasse Viren of Finland was widely rumored to have used it. There seemed to be no other explanation for the fact that he ran much faster at the Olympics than he did any time before or after. In recent years, Eastern Bloc athletes were believed to be using this technique systematically.


The International Olympic Committee (IOC) appeared to have been uncomfortable about blood boosting but chose to do nothing about it on the grounds that there was no practical way to test for it. Thus, the practice continued covertly. This game of “We can't test for it, so we'll pretend it doesn't exist” that the IOC and all of the other sports bodies continued to play encouraged progressively more coaches and athletes to use this scheme until the blunders of the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team emerged and created such a public relations furor that it could no longer be ignored.


My view is that blood boosting is an undesirable intrusion into athletic competition in that it substantially raises the cost of competing and forces athletes to submit to a messy medical procedure in order to compete at the highest levels. On these grounds, it should have been made against the rules even though there was no test for it, since otherwise it was tacitly approved.

A Boost for Cycling

A proposal to try blood boosting for U.S. cyclists was initiated in 1983 by Ed Burke, who had a Ph.D. in physiology and who had secured a position on the U.S. Cycling Federation staff by the time-honored conflict-of-interest method: he managed to get elected to the USCF Board of Directors, used that platform to obtain support for his research, then arranged for a staff appointment with the understanding that he would later resign from the Board.


In 1983 Burke approached the USOC staff with a proposal to try blood boosting; they responded that they were interested in giving it a try if the USCF officialdom blessed the project. Burke sought in-house support but found little enthusiasm. In a memo dated October 1, 1983, from Executive Director Dave Prouty, Burke was told not to proceed with this project unless it was approved by the Board of Directors. It was never taken to the Board.


As the Olympics approached, one rider whose father-in-law happened to be an M.D. decided to give it a try on his own. Danny van Haute burned up the track during the Olympic Selection Races and ascribed his success to blood boosting. The national coaching staff and some riders took a sudden interest in this scheme and started plotting to use it. They decided to keep it a secret from most of the officers and staff of the USCF, however, apparently because they figured it might get blocked if they were open about it. The architects of this scheme were national coach Eddie Borysewicz, staff physiologist Ed Burke, and vice president Mike Fraysse.


The main problem with the blood boosting scheme was that there wasn't enough time to extract blood from each athlete and let them fully replenish it by the time of the Olympics. An alternative scheme was concocted: use transfusions from friends and relatives instead. Aside from the ethical and administrative errors in this decision, it was also medically defective in two ways:

(1) according to prior medical studies, the planned transfusion of one unit of blood per rider was insufficient to improve performance and

(2) transfusions involve considerably greater risks than self-infusions.

Regarding the latter point, medical literature that had been read by the organizers of this project pointed out that the use of transfusions for blood boosting is unethical.


Self-infusions involve relatively low risk if done right, but transfusions involve risks of various allergic reactions as well as the transmission of certain diseases. In fact, we know now that some of the riders might have contracted AIDS through this process; there was no test for it then.


Ed Burke arranged for Dr. Herman Falsetti, a cardiologist acquaintance of his from the University of Iowa, to come to the Olympics to administer the transfusions. Falsetti was himself a competitive cyclist. His participation in this project illustrates the fact that whatever unethical medical procedure one might wish to undertake, a medical doctor can probably be found who is willing to do it, especially if it is for a noble cause such as winning Olympic medals.


A number of cyclists were talked into taking transfusions, which were carried out in bedrooms in the Ramada Inn in Carson, California. They should have been preceded by careful blood compatibility tests, but this was apparently not done. However Dr. Falsetti did arrange through a local hospital to test the blood types. The cover story given to the hospital was that the large-scale blood testing was being undertaken in case of a terrorist attack on the athletes! [Note that this “terrorist attack” excuse for unethical actions predates the Bush administration by many years.]


For some reason, the courier who took the blood samples to the hospital was a Mexican bike shop owner who hobbled about with a large cast on one leg. Such a cast of characters! I was staying in the motel where the blood transfusions took place, though I was not aware of them at the time. On some occasions, I even visited the room where it was done, but the perpetrators kept this activity out of my sight. They had apparently correctly assessed what my position would be.


The only odd thing that I noticed was in a hallway conversation with a friend from my district who was one of the top riders. Our conversations were normally open and candid, but this time he talked in a guarded way and seemed to want to get away as soon as possible. I learned much later that he had had a bad reaction to the transfusion and so was unable to ride up to his capacity.


Thus, a number of athletes undertook a substantial risk without any compensating benefits. In fact, a least one rider had a worse performance as a result. As a consequence of these transfusions, one or more female athletes might have developed blood antibodies that could later attack her fetus if she became pregnant. At least nobody seems to have gotten AIDS, which was already making its way through the country, though there was no test for it yet.


The subsequent exposure of this unethical activity and the resulting political fallout tell quite a bit about the integrity of the people who run the sports governing bodies.

Opportunity to clean house

The cyclists' defective blood boosting project at the '84 Olympics was destined to be exposed. The whistleblower was a person who was only peripherally involved in the project. He was initially lauded for stepping forward, but it later became apparent that his action was motivated less by altruism than by a desire to cover up his own misconduct.


When the blood transfusion incidents became known to USCF officials, some of them looked on it as a problem to be dealt with, while others saw it as a political opportunity. Rob Lea had been elected President of the USCF about eight weeks after the 1984 Olympics, following a campaign that featured a scurrilous attack on the incumbent, Phil Voxland. A key part of the attack was a pamphlet that was written and distributed by a contract employee of the Federation [Jim McFadden] who was apparently trying to protect his job. Lea had the solid support of the cabal and picked up enough additional votes from the Board dimwits to get elected.


Lea was an outstanding track racer in the 35+ age group. He had a Ph.D. and was a practicing psychologist. He was also an accomplished manipulator. One of his campaign promises had been that he was going to fire the Executive Director, Dave Prouty, who had resisted manipulation by Lea and his Eastern colleagues.


After he won the Presidency, Lea quickly discovered that he didn't have the support he needed within the Executive Committee to fire Prouty. Facing reality, he very smoothly switched to negotiating a renewal of Prouty's contract, as if nothing had happened. When, in the same Executive Committee meeting, I proposed that Lea's hatchet man be fired, he immediately agreed without even offering a counterargument. I was a bit surprised at the ease with which he discarded the man who had risked his job by doing Lea's dirty work. I felt at the time that this was a revealing measure of Lea's integrity. He probably realized that his man couldn't continue anyway, given that the attempt to fire Prouty had failed.


In mid-November 1984, about a month after Lea took office, he received a report from a person on the medical staff of the U.S. Olympic Committee regarding a young orthopedic surgeon named Tom Dickson, who had worked with the USCF National Team and was interested in sports medicine. Dickson had complained to the USOC about a blood boosting incident involving U.S. cyclists that he said he witnessed during the Olympics.


Lea quickly set up a three-person inquiry panel to investigate the incident. He asked me to participate because one of my listed duties as Chairman Board of Control was to “Investigate allegations of misconduct or violations of racing rules, assessing penalties when required.” He also appointed himself and director Dale Hughes to the panel. He notably did not include Executive Director Dave Prouty for reasons that soon became clear.


Lea excitedly talked to me on the phone about the opportunity to “clean house” that this situation presented. His plan was to use this incident as a basis for ousting Dave Prouty, Eddie B., and Ed Burke. He said with glee, “I'm going to get that Polish bastard!” In his enthusiasm, Lea apparently forgot that I didn't share his views on many issues. I pointed out that there was no evidence linking Prouty to the conspiracy, so it looked like a far reach to try to get him. Lea sounded disappointed that I felt that way.


Inquiring minds want to know

An inquiry into the blood boosting incident was held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs on November 17, 1984. USCF Executive Director Dave Prouty had requested that he be included in the investigative panel. President Rob Lea realized that his plot to get rid of Prouty was too obvious, so he decided at the last moment to include him in the panel.


When Lea and I were by ourselves at one point just before the inquiry began, I smilingly asked him if he thought Prouty would recommend that the Executive Director be fired. Lea looked at me blankly, as if he didn't understand what I was talking about.


In the morning we listened to Dr. Tom Dickson's account of his observations. He reported on which athletes he had seen getting transfusions and which others he had heard about. He didn't mention taking part in any of this, but we later learned that he had apparently assisted willingly in some of the transfusions.


I was curious about why it had taken Dickson three months to report his observations. He remarked that it had taken him awhile to get to talk to a hematologist and learn that what he had seen was medically unethical. I later learned that what really happened was that after he returned home to Allentown, Pennsylvania, a national-level woman rider who knew about the transfusions at the Olympics asked Dickson if he would do the same thing for her in preparation for a forthcoming major race. He agreed and did a preliminary test of blood compatibility with her sister. The rider had a severe allergic reaction, causing her arm to swell up. This apparently scared Dickson and made him realize that he didn't know what he was doing. At that point he decided to complain to the USOC about the earlier transfusion incidents.

Troika tango

The afternoon session of our inquiry was scheduled to be an interview of the organizers of the transfusion scheme except for Dr. Falsetti, who declined to talk. Dave Prouty had correctly perceived that he was on Lea's hit list and, in typical style, had brought his lawyer into the proceedings. Since his lawyer was also the Federation's lawyer, they decided to bring in another lawyer to specifically look after the Federation's interests, namely Bart Enoch. When those lawyers started threatening the accused conspirators, the latter went out and hired a real badass lawyer.


This lawyer proliferation was a direct result of Lea's political posturing. It was a giant waste of everyone's time and money. The only thing that the three lawyers accomplished was to inhibit the inquiry and run up the bill. Before the hearing convened, the USCF lawyer and Prouty's lawyer had gotten together to decide just what questions could be asked. They developed a short list of things they wanted to know and told the rest of us that we couldn't ask anything. I said “Screw you! I never agreed to any of this” and they scowled over my uncooperative attitude. Prouty clucked a bit but didn't press the issue. He knew from past experience that I could get much more outrageous, given provocation.


The inquiry began with Coaches Eddie B., Carl Leusencamp, and Tim Kelly together with Vice President Mike Fraysse, Dr. Ed Burke, three riders, and their mean-looking lawyer on one side of a wide table and the four inquisitors and our two lawyers on the other side. From the outset, the three lawyers discussed only procedural issues while posturing and emitting content-free lawyer talk. There were a couple of times when the lawyers felt that they needed to confer in private with each other and went into the hall. This gave the rest of us a chance to have some friendly conversation and actually begin to communicate a bit until they returned.


After awhile, Eddie B. spoke up, saying “I do not like to be treated like criminal. I do not understand why we must speak through lawyers.” I said that I agreed with him that bringing the lawyers into the inquiry had turned it into a fiasco. I said that I was sorry that we could not discuss what happened in a more straightforward way. The lawyers all scowled but didn't respond verbally.


After using up most of the available time discussing procedural matters, their lawyer finally answered the six questions that our lawyers had asked. Actually, he didn't so much answer them as evade them. The lawyers then seemed to run out of gas and quieted down a bit, so I went ahead and asked a number of questions that I had been forbidden to bring up and received what seemed like straight answers.


In the weeks following the inquiry I communicated with the U.S. Olympic Committee about their policies, did some private interviews of riders, and developed recommendations for disciplinary action and legislation to inhibit future undertakings of this type. When I attended the next Executive Committee meeting in Chicago in mid-December 1984, I noticed that Rob Lea made no specific proposals for dealing with the vampire project. It also appeared that he had given up on his plan to get rid of Prouty. He was getting heat from me over his conduct and some of the other officers joined the attack. At that point, he seemed to give up on everything. I was not too surprised when he resigned a week or so later.


As a result of his bizarre performance, Lea holds the record for shortest term in the office of USCF President. He was there just two months, during which time he demonstrated that he was unable to cope with the first problem that came along. He tried to turn this problem into grounds for a political purge and, when that failed, he lost interest in the job. I was not displeased that Lea had resigned. Like former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Lea seemed to be at his best in running for office but, once elected, was not prepared to do the job.


Lea still had a parting shot left. He passed some inside information and a lot of nonsense to a national magazine in an attempt to get his enemies. Meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic Committee covered itself with a thick layer of whitewash.

Rolling Stoned

We had hoped to keep a lid on the vampirism incident until the USCF Board of Directors meeting scheduled for January 18, 1985. That would permit the Board to review the results of our investigation, adopt disciplinary and remedial measures, then make public both what had happened and what was being done about it. This was not to be, however. Early in the morning of January 4, I received a phone call from a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. He asked me a series of questions based on certain memos from our investigation that he said he possessed. It did not take a lot of analysis to figure out where he had gotten them -- only two copies had been made of some of the memos I wrote. One copy was still in my filing cabinet and the other one I had sent to Rob Lea.


I promptly called Rob and asked him why he was telling the press about these incidents. He denied doing it, apparently not realizing that I knew for sure that he had. This dishonest response seemed to me to be tragically consistent with his general conduct. The newspapers and television people had the story within a day or two and my telephone was ringing a lot. I decided to confirm all information that was in the memos that Rolling Stone had and to not comment on information that was not in those memos. By following this policy, I aimed to remove the insider's advantage that Rob Lea's friend at Rolling Stone enjoyed.


I saw in the press that Dr. Tom Dickson was talking freely about what others had done, but still was not mentioning his role in the transfusion incidents. He reportedly offered various explanations for these incidents, such as an alleged fear of failure that drove the U.S. cyclists to take these risks.

Olympic whitewash

Officials of the U.S. Olympic Committee began trying to rewrite history so as to divert attention from their failed responsibility to set policy. In an article that appeared January 12, Dr. Irving Dardik, Chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Sports Medicine Council, was quoted as stating that “the USOC informally has banned the controversial procedure” (i.e. blood boosting). In fact, that ban was so informal that it did not appear in any of their regulations or guidance documentation. In other words, the bureaucrats were trying to cover their blank slate, to avoid blame.


Col. F. Don Miller, the Executive Director of the USOC, was quoted the next day as saying that the use of blood transfusions to improve performance is unethical. That was certainly correct. He went on to say that the International Olympic Committee has opposed such practices since 1976. Unfortunately, there seems to be no documentary support for that claim -- they kept their alleged opposition secret. More whitewash.


The lead article in the Sports Illustrated edition of January 21, 1985 had a rather accurate and comprehensive review of the incident. It quoted me correctly as saying about blood boosting that “There was a policy vacuum and these guys moved into it in a stupid way.” They also quoted Dr. Tom Dickson as saying he was opposed to the project from the beginning. That was clearly a lie.


The USOC's Dr. Irving Dardik was quoted by Sports Illustrated as saying “It's absolute that this was unethical, unacceptable and illegal as far as the USOC was concerned. All [this discussion of] questionable legality to me [is] immaterial.” His statement that it was “illegal” was a flagrant, self-serving lie. I was pleased to see Dr. Dardik get kicked out of the USOC a year or so after this incident. He had apparently played a few too many political games for even that political organization to swallow.


An amusing series of sports cartoons appeared in newspapers carrying Tank McNamara.  They showed cyclists circling a track with bottles of blood connected to one arm, hanging bat-like from shower bars and traveling in vampire-style coffins.


The worst major article was the last one to appear and the one based on the extensive documentation that had been provided by Rob Lea. The Rolling Stone issue of February 14 had a headline in 32 point type on the cover, just below Mick Jagger's sardonic face, reading:

“AN OLYMPIC SCANDAL - How U.S. medalists were doped to win.”

Inside was an article under the headline,

“OLYMPIC CHEATING - The inside story of illicit doping and the U.S. cycling team.”

The article was filled with lies and gross distortions, just like the headlines.


I wrote a letter to Rolling Stone refuting some of the more flagrant assertions in their article and followed it up with phone calls to the editors. They refused to print the refutation unless I cut it down to “a couple of hundred words.” In other words, I was supposed to refute three full pages of lies in a few inches of text, provided that they liked what I said. My answer to that was unprintable.

Vampirism -- Driving the Stake

The USCF Board of Directors disciplined the organizers of the vampire project and took steps to prevent a recurrence of blood boosting. When the Board met on January 18, 1985, the first order of business was to elect a new president to replace the defunct Rob Lea. Phil Voxland returned to power. As it turned out, Lea did Voxland a great favor -- under the USCF Constitution, a president many serve for at most four consecutive years, but by taking a two month vacation, the clock was reset and Voxland was eventually able to extend his tenure to about five years.


No discipline of the athletes involved in blood boosting was contemplated at any time because they had not violated any rules and had, for the most part, followed the guidance of the coaches and other officials. There had been a number of false rumors that they would be punished and that Olympic medals that they won would have to be returned. Those rumors were apparently circulated by the usual troublemakers and some who wished to fan the fires under the vampire conspirators.


After a review of the transfusion conspiracy, the Board decided on disciplinary measures for Coach Eddie B. and Dr. Ed Burke as follows:

  1. Letter of reprimand;
  2. 30 day suspension without pay effective immediately;
  3. Six month delay in salary review.

Vice President Mike Fraysse received minor penalties because there wasn't much that could be done to him by the Board:

  1. Letter of reprimand;
  2. Removal as Chairman of the Competition Committee;
  3. Demotion from First Vice President to Third Vice President;
  4. Request that he resign as Vice President.

The reason that the Board didn't simply remove him from office altogether is that the whole board didn't elect vice presidents -- they were chosen by directors from a geographical section. The Eastern Directors subsequently met and decided to leave Fraysse in office as Vice President, which was consistent with their general approach to ethics.

Locking the Barn Door

At their meeting in January 1985, the USCF Board adopted rules banning blood boosting. These made it clear that not only would there be penalties if someone did it and was caught, but that coaches and other officials could be disciplined if they even suggested doing it.


Somehow, Coach Eddie B. did not get the message. About a month later, he was again being quoted in the press as saying “Blood doping is legal and should be a personal matter left up to the athlete.” Only after the Executive Director wrote him another letter telling him politely to shut up did the he stop talking about this.


In adopting rules against blood boosting, the USCF apparently became the first sports organization in the world to ban this practice. Other organizations later adopted similar prohibitions, including the U.S. Olympic Committee, the International Cycling Union, and the International Olympic Committee. Unfortunately, none of these prohibitions will be fully effective until a reliable test for blood boosting is developed.


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[1] Melvin H. Williams, et al, “The effect of blood infusion upon endurance capacity and ratings of perceived exertion,” Medicine and Science in Sports, Vol. 10, No. 2, p. 113, 1975.


[2] Melvin Williams, “Blood Doping and Aerobic Activity,” Joper, p. 55, Feb. 1980.


[3] Melvin Williams, “Blood Doping: an Update,” The Physician and Sportsman, Vol. 9, No. 7, July 1981.


[4] Norman Gledhill, “The Ergogenic Effect of Blood Doping,” The Physician and Sportsman, Vol. 11, No. 9, Sept. 1983.


[5] “U.S. Olympic cyclists in `blood doping' controversy,” Times Tribune, Palo Alto, CA, p. D-3, Jan. 9, 1985.


[6] “U.S. Cyclists hurt by belief in miracles, official says,” San Jose Mercury News, p. 13D, Jan. 12, 1985.


[7] “Blood-Doping Unethical, U.S. Olympic Official Says,” New York Times, p. S-3, Jan. 17, 1985.


[8] “Blood-packing: Outspoken opponent agreed to attempt it after Olympics,” Gazette Telegraph, p. C-1, Jan. 18, 1985.


[9] “U.S. `doping' incident leads to sanctions,” San Jose Mercury News, p. 2E, Jan. 19, 1985.


[10] “The Racer's Edge?” Newsweek, p. 66, Jan. 21, 1985.


[11] Bjarne Rostang and Robert Sullivan, “Triumphs Tainted With Blood,” Sports Illustrated, p. 12, Jan. 21, 1985.


[14] Richard Ben Cramer, “Olympic Cheating,” Rolling Stone, p. 25, Feb. 14, 1985.


[12] “Cycling coach draws criticism,” Colorado Springs Sun, p. 1-A, Feb. 27, 1988.


[13] “Cycling coach calls blood doping legal,” Denver Post, Feb. 27, 1985.