Opinion 1 March 2016

The truth about Knud: revisiting an anti-doping myth

The anti-doping movement may have been initiated on the basis of a myth. In ‘A brief history of doping’ on its website, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) mention Knud Enemark Jensen’s death, involving ‘traces of amphetamine’, as one of the key events which caused sporting authorities to introduce drug testing. Dr. Paul Dimeo, a senior lecturer in sports policy at the University of Stirling, explains that there is no evidence that Jensen had even taken amphetamine, less still died as a result of such ingestion. Dr Dimeo explains how the myth came about and was gradually perpetuated to suit the objectives of sport’s anti-doping regulators. He also examines the dangers that continuing to support such an inaccuracy holds for the anti-doping community, especially in today’s environment.


WADA was established to represent and promote values of health, fair play and the spirit of sport. However, the ways in which the death and reputation of Jensen have been treated by the anti-doping movement reveals a lack of concern for individuals if they can be exploited to serve the greater good.

Knud Jensen’s death

At just 23 years old, Jensen was one of the best amateur sportsmen in Denmark at the time. He fell from his bike during the 1960 Olympic Games 100km time trial, and later died. He had complained of feeling unwell earlier in the race. That day the temperature was around 40 degrees Celsius and during the race 31 other cyclists suffered heatstroke. Jensen hit his head after the fall and suffered concussion. He was not cooled down immediately, but placed in a military hospital tent where he lay unconscious for about two hours in a 50-degree heat before dying (Møller 2005)[1].

In other circumstances such a tragedy would lead to some form of honour and recognition of a young life devoted to sport. Perhaps there would even be some investigations into the conditions of the cycling race that facilitated his excessive de-hydration, sunstroke and the lack of proper medical care. Instead, Jensen is remembered only through one aspect: that he doped himself to death. His death has been exploited as propaganda for the anti-doping cause, since 1960 and continues to be so. His case can be contrasted with that of professional English rider Tommy Simpson, who died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France of conditions also related to heat exhaustion. Despite Simpson’s use of amphetamines, he remains recognised through the granite memorials in England and on Mont Ventoux, where current cyclists and fans leave tokens of respect.

Anti-doping agenda

Several months before Jensen’s passing, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage had stated his desire that the Olympic movement address the issue of drugs. Although amphetamine use was evident in cycling, athletics, football and other sports, there was no policy against drug use, no means of testing and no consensus as to what might be banned. Therefore, any athlete using a performance enhancing drug during the 1960 Games, was not breaking any rules or contravening any established medical or ethical opinion (Dimeo 2007)[2]. Indeed, some argued that professional athletes should be allowed to ‘dope’; though many within the IOC countered that amateurism is closely related to naturalism and that artificial enhancements sullied the traditions, value and essence of sport (Gleaves 2011)[3].

When Jensen passed away, there was some speculation of drug use that seemed to fit the emerging anti-doping agenda. After the Danish team’s coach, Oluf Jorgensen, allegedly admitted providing his team with a drug called Roniacol, a vasilodator, the Chicago Daily Tribune covered the story with the headline ‘Trainer Says He Issued Cyclist Drug‘ (29 August 1960)[4]. On closer reading, though, the article ambivalently reports that Jorgensen claimed he had obtained Roniacol from a doctor, and six Danish cyclists returning from the Olympics denied having taken ‘pep pills or any other kind of stimulants’. The article also made clear that the autopsy results were not yet available.

Doping rumours

Despite the lack of substance, rumours of Jensen’s doping persisted. An article in a 1962 IOC Bulletin, entitled ‘Waging War Against Dope’, hinted that Jensen had died from the use of drugs[5]. Noting that the full autopsy report had only been released to his family, the author wrote that ‘we shall never know the real cause of his death‘. While the author had avoided making any direct accusation, the implication was offensive enough that the President of the Danish Olympic Committee (DOC) wrote a letter to the Editor of the Bulletin, requesting that readers be informed that Jensen’s autopsy did not reveal the presence of amphetamines. The letter was supported by evidence from the Danish Public Health Board – who had seen a copy of the post mortem report – and a confirmation from the Danish Police that no charges would be brought in relation to Jensen’s death since it had been ‘caused solely by heatstroke‘. When publishing the DOC’s letter, the Bulletin’s Editor noted rather optimistically that these comments should ‘put an end to this regrettable accident[6].

Later investigations would show that although Jensen and his team-mates had indeed been given Roniacol – a vasodilator, which was not prohibited – it was unlikely to have contributed to his death[7]. Yet, anti-doping leaders ignored the Danish statement and the counter-evidence to promote the myth that Jensen’s death was attributable to amphetamines. Worse still, the myth surrounding his death was used as a case study to lobby for an increase in the regulation of doping, with no regard for Jensen’s reputation.

Perpetuating the myth

The myth of Jensen’s death gained some traction after being publicly repeated by leading sports doctors in the mid-1960s. For example, the Belgian anti-doping campaigner, Albert Dirix, wrote in 1966 that Jensen ‘and two of his companions became gravely ill as a result of doping; for us it is a matter of conscience and nothing can be more criminal than to destroy the health or life of a young athlete’ (1966: 185)[8].

While the full autopsy has never been made public, an official report dated March 1961 – prepared by three Italian doctors – stated that the cause of death was heatstroke and that no drugs were found in Jensen’s body. One of those doctors, it has been claimed, later gave a different account and said ‘several things‘ including amphetamines were in fact detected[9]. No official statement has ever been released addressing the allegation. Nor has anyone ever explained why such information – if true – would have been excluded from the official report. To this day, the allegation remains officially uncorroborated.

That notwithstanding, the myth continued to grow. The IOC Bulletin continued to include comments from leading figures supporting the Jensen myth. Monique Berlioux, who would become IOC Executive Director in 1969, wrote in the IOC Newsletter for October of that year[10]:

remember the incident in Rome in 1960, when the Dane, Enemark JENSEN, [sic] met his death in a road cycle race as a result of his taking drugs – perhaps not even an over-dose. This sad experience during the Olympic Games was in many people’s opinions at the root of the setting up of the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission.’

This latter point is important, if not entirely verifiable from existing historical sources. The Medical Commission proposed by Brundage in 1962 was to be led by Sir Arthur Porritt (an anti-doping moralist), but did not become established until 1967 under Prince Alexandre de Merode, who would lead it until 2002. Berlioux‘s musings on Jensen’s death – despite everything that we know about the circumstances of his death – suggest that his death was a catalyst for action, and had become a reference point for the small group of anti-doping enthusiasts who were seeking additional resources.

Anti-doping medical experts such as Professor Ludwig Prokop, who worked with the IOC Medical Commission, were inclined to perpetuate the myth. Prokop had identified doping issues in the 1950s and would become a leading activist. In 1972 he told a press conference that the Jensen case was central to the development of anti-doping; he also authored a report (which is no longer available) concerning Jensen’s death. In a statement that aptly summarises the whole sorry affair, Prokop made this stark admission in 2001[11]:

I was there when Knud Enemark died, and from the beginning I suspected that doping might be the cause. I sought information straight away but I couldn’t gain access to the post-mortem report. A couple of months later in Monte Carlo I met the Italian professor who carried out the post-mortem on Knud Enemark, and he told me that, among other things, he had found amphetamine in the Danish cyclist. However, I have to admit that I have never seen documentation to prove that his death was caused by doping. Perhaps it was wrong of me to draw it out in the report’.

Perhaps key to the power and function of the myth, he went on to say that he does not believe, however, that Jensen died in vain: ‘Remember that Knud Enemark’s death initiated the fight against doping[12].

The myth had become entrenched long before 2001, and even embellished, in both scholarly and popular texts. In 1976, the Vice-President of the International Amateur Cycling Federation, Wlodzimierz Golebiewski, claimed that Jensen had died after ‘a large overdose of drugs’ (see Dimeo 2007)[13]. A 1984 book by David Wallechinsky called The Complete Book of the Olympics refers to Jensen’s death as being caused by a ‘blood circulation stimulant[14].

In 1991, the former Chief Medical Officer for the US Olympic Committee wrote a highly regarded book, Drugs, Sports and Politics, which included the following claim[15]:

Perhaps the landmark amphetamine-related tragedy in Olympic history occurred when Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen collapsed and died during the 175.38-km road race at the Summer Olympiad in Rome. It was reported at the time that, leading up to his death, Jensen was taking, supposedly on doctor’s orders, a combination of nicotynal alcohol and amphetamine, sarcastically nicknamed by his competitors the ‘Knud Jensen diet’. Several of the other athletes competing in Jensen’s race collapsed like Jensen had at the finish; however, Jensen was the only fatality. An autopsy revealed that Jensen probably died from dehydration caused by the amphetamine in his system, though his skull had also been fractured.’

It should be noted that none of the above cited any primary supporting sources of evidence.

During the 1990s, the list of myth-perpetuators grew quickly, as if the broader crisis in anti-doping of that decade required a historical foundation to justify tougher sanctions on doping athletes. Regrettably, even serious academics fell into the same trap and published the sinister version of Jensen’s death (see, for instance, D Mottram, 1996[16]; B Houlihan, 1999[17] and I Waddington, 2000[18]).  In his book, Houlihan writes[19]:

 ‘In 1960 the Danish cyclist, Knut Jensen, collapsed and died at the Rome Olympic Games during the 175-kilometre team time trials following his use of amphetamines and nicotine acid. Jensen’s two team-mates, who had taken the same mixture, also collapsed but later recovered in hospital.’

That serious and well-regarded academics would slavishly report the myth as if it were fact, is a terrifying indictment to the power of rumour and testament to how enduring the myth has become.

Arguably more influential than the above academic texts, WADA immortalised the myth of Jensen’s in its brief history of anti-doping on its website in 2002. Despite being very brief, it includes a series of unsubstantiated claims, stating that:

The death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen during competition at the Olympic Games in Rome 1960 (the autopsy revealed traces of amphetamine) increased the pressure for sports authorities to introduce drug testing.’

It is not clear who authored this short historical review, but no references are provided to original sources.




Deconstructing the myth

Challenges to the myth first surfaced in the 2000s. A Danish newspaper journalist investigated the case in 2001 and this was followed up by an academic study in 2005 by Professor Verner Møller, who analysed all the possible situations and concluded it was unlikely Jensen took amphetamines. Møller concluded that his death was likely caused by a combination of dehydration, heat exhaustion and possibly the Roniacol tablets. Møller contends that amphetamines would have offset the effects of the latter and may actually have saved Jensen. Møller suggested that Ludwig Prokop was at the heart of the myth, arguing ‘it seems likely that he accidentally ‘invents’ the provision of amphetamine by the coach based on the Italian post-mortem report‘.

By the late 2000s, it was clear to those working in the academic field of anti-doping research that a new approach with regards to Jensen’s death was required. In 2007, I authored a book A History of Drug Use in Sport, 1876-1976[20], which examined the idea that the beginnings of anti-doping were based on a myth. Other authors have subsequently been more cautious in their discussions of Jensen’s death. In his 2008 book Dope: A History of Performance Enhancement in Sport, Daniel Rosen noted that Moller ‘disagrees with labeling Jensen’s death as doping related’ (p.24)[21]. Thomas Hunt noted Møller’s analysis in his 2007 PhD Dissertation that would be published in 2011 (Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960-2008)[22]. Other scholars such as Bernat López and John Gleaves have been inspired by the critical appraisal of the Jensen myth to deconstruct other anti-doping myths such as the reasons for banning blood doping in 1985, the alleged spate of EPO-related deaths in the late 1980s-early 1990s and the health risks of human growth hormone.

Addressing the myth today

Regrettably, some continue to ignore the availability of the counter-evidence: the 5th edition of Drugs in Sport by David Mottram and Neil Chester (2015)[23] repeats the standard account of the incident. Most frustrating of all, WADA’s account of Jensen’s death remains on its website. Whether or not one agrees with it, WADA’s role as the global regulator for anti-doping inevitably means that it will be and is regarded by many to be the fount of all anti-doping knowledge. WADA – above all others – therefore, has a responsibility to ensure that it is not peddling in half-truths, myths and uncorroborated historical accounts.

Why should a young man continue to have his reputation sullied for the supposed higher purpose of anti-doping education? Why should a man who likely did nothing wrong be presented as a cautionary tale to young athletes that doping can be fatal? It is not a stretch to suggest that the use of Jensen’s death for the purposes of the anti-doping narrative amounts to exploitation and propaganda.

Efforts to alert senior managers at WADA of the error have so far proved fruitless. I have only received one meaningful communication from WADA on the issue, and it was this:

‘The [Education] Committee was satisfied with the historical background provided. Unfortunately, funds are not available to further this historical review. The Committee felt that the limited funds available are better served to address the problems we are currently facing. In terms of Knud Jensen, allegations have indicated the use of amphetamines.’

I would argue, of course, that this is not a matter of history alone, despite it being 55 years ago. It is a matter for the present and the future: truth is more ethical than lies. Given enough time, the myth will become fact. WADA holds itself out as being a bastion of ethics, promoting health and fair play, protecting athletes, and tackling unethical behaviour. The way in which Knud Enemark Jensen has been treated since 1960 and the contemporary refusal to redress that mistake (now that we have a revisionist perspective) undermine the essential qualities about humanity and sport that the anti-doping movement claims to uphold and promote.

It casts a shadow over WADA’s reputation, and that of the previous generation of anti-doping doctors, authors and academics. Any movement becomes compromised if its acolytes come to imagine the cause to be greater than the individuals and when they are prepared to undermine their own ideals in order to make a point.



[1] Møller, V. (2005) ‘Knud Enemark Jensen’s Death During the 1960 Rome Olympics: A Search for Truth?, Sport in History, vol. 25, issue 3, pp. 452-471

[2] Dimeo, P. (2007) A History of Drug Use in Sport, 1876-1976: Beyond Good and Evil, Routledge

[3] Gleaves, J. (2011) ‘Doped Professionals and Clean Amateurs: Amateurism’s Influence on the Modern Philosophy of Anti-Doping’, Journal of Sport History, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 237-254

[4] Chicago Daily Tribune, 29 August 1960

[5] International Olympic Committee Bulletin, February 1962, no. 77

[6] International Olympic Committee Bulletin, May 1962, no. 78

[7] Møller, ibid

[8] Dirix, A. (1966) ‘The doping problem at the Tokyo and Mexico City Olympic Games’, Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 183-6

[9] Møller, ibid

[10] Berlioux, M. (1969) ‘Doping, Drugs and Sport’, IOC Newsletter, 25 October, p.561

[11] Cited in Møller, ibid

[12] Cited in Møller, ibid

[13] Dimeo, ibid

[14] Wallechinsky D. (1984) The Complete Book of the Olympics, Aurum Press

[15] Voy, R. and Deeter, K. (1991) Drugs, Sport, and Politics, Leisure Press

[16] Mottram, D. (ed), (1996) Drugs in Sport, Spon, 2nd ed

[17] Houlihan, B. (1999) Dying to Win– Doping in sport and the development of anti-doping policy, Council of Europe

[18] Waddington, I. (2000) Sport, Health and Drugs: a critical sociology, Spon

[19] Houlihan ibid

[20] Dimeo, ibid

[21] Rosen, D. (2008) Dope: A History of Performance Enhancement in Sport, ABC Clio

[22] Hunt, T. (2011) Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960-2008, University of Texas Press

[23] Mottram, D. and Chester, N. (2014) Drugs in Sport, Routledge, 6th ed

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