Malcolm Gladwell Disappoints in Latest Steroid Discussion

  • Tweet

Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, provided an uncharacteristically disappointing discussion of anabolic steroids in sports with Nicholas Thompson for the New Yorker Magazine. Gladwell and Thompson chatted about various sports issues during the 2012 London Olympics. Both Gladwell and Thompson suggested that doping was not an issue for endurance sports and that steroid use was likely limited to shorter sprint events.

Thompson started off the discussion by asserting that practically all sprinters likely used steroids while very few distance runners used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

“My instinct is that virtually all the men and all the women in every event shorter than four hundred metres are doped, about half of the quarter milers are doped, a few of the half milers, and very few of the long-distance runners,” according to Thompson.

Gladwell, who wrote an excellent article about anabolic steroids entitled “Drugstore Athlete” for the New Yorker in 2001, didn’t feel the need to refute Thompson’s assertion.

“I confess that I don’t understand the relationship between long-distance running and doping,” admitted Gladwell. “Sprinting—yes. But do we know what kind of benefit a truly elite runner in, say, the 10,000-meters gets from drugs?”

Unfortunately, Gladwell and Thompson are terribly misinformed. Fans of Gladwell could be misled into believing endurance sports are steroid- and/or drug-free.

In fact, doping in endurance sports tends to be among the most advanced and sophisticated in modern competitive sports. It is difficult to miss the headlines every summer when the Tour de France takes place. Cycling commentators remind the world that practically the entire peloton is under suspicion for doping.

The use of banned PEDs such as erythropoietin (EPO), testosterone, human growth hormone (hGH), insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), Actovegin, Aicar and banned doping technique such as blood transfusions have been well documented in professional cycling. It stands to reason that other endurance sports would be similarly doped.

While Thompson suggests that endurance athletes rarely get caught, the list of dopers in cycling is a long one. Thompson claims he would be shocked if Kenyan athletes were caught doping. This happened with two Kenyan marathon runners in the weeks prior to the Olympics. Failed drug tests among endurance athletes are not an uncommon phenomenon.
The popular perception of steroid and PED users is one of a hulking, hypermuscular athlete competing in a power, strength or speed event. While anabolic steroids may offer more benefit to power and strength athletes, steroids offer amazing recuperative effects for endurance athletes as well. Furthermore, anabolic steroids are only one type of PED. There are various other categories of PEDs that can have dramatic effects on the performance of endurance athletes.

Elite endurance athletes could give elite sprinters a run for the money when it comes to doping.

Photo credit: Kris Krüg / Flickr via Wikipedia


Thompson, N. (July 30, 2012). How Many Olympic Runners Dope? Retrieved from