Olympic Mythology I: Josh Bertetta’s Mythological Take on Olympic Sports Doping

(As the Olympics approach, I’ll be taking a mythological look at them in a series of posts. Recent scandals have made the problem of performance-enhancing drugs particularly topical for these Olympics. In the guest post below, my fellow mythologist Josh Bertetta discusses this problem from the interesting perspective of Greek mythology. See his other posts on his blog, e.g.,  https://joshbertetta.wordpress.com/2016/06/21/tony-fitton-a-british-powerlifting-original/)

The Clean-Sports Movement and Performance-Enhancing Drugs:

Mythological Interpretation

By Josh Bertetta Ph.D.

“Revealed: sport’s dirtiest secret; Third of medals won by athletes with suspicious blood tests.” So read a Sunday Times (London) headline on August 2, 2015.

American newspapers reported on the claims, but largely remained silent on the matter until November when a name was dropped: Russia.

Then the news poured in as almost daily new information made known one of the largest scandals to rock the world of international sport. Dominating the newsfeed was the Russian Track and Field team and their doping practices. The corruption in Russia ran so deep that in June 2016, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) decided to prevent the team from participating in this year’s Rio Olympics.

But it wasn’t just the Russians.

And it wasn’t just track and field.

This story first broke in August 2015 after a whistleblower gave The Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD/WDR access to an immense database containing over 12,000 blood tests from over 5 thousand athletes between 2001 and 2012. The results were astonishing. Almost 1,500 blood tests from more than 800 athletes from 94 countries were found to contain abnormal levels of various substances banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 146 medals, including 55 gold and 46 silver, were awarded to athletes with suspicious blood tests.

Yet Olympic sport is not the only arena in which athletes have been suspended and/or banned for using performance-enhancing drugs. Almost a dozen Major League Baseball players received suspensions and one was banned for life in the past four months alone. So too did tennis star Maria Sharapova receive a four-year ban.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) first began testing for drugs in 1972. Four years later it began testing for anabolic steroids. The creation of WADA in 1999 hoped to put an end to drug use in international sport. But, the fact of the matter is this: There has never been a clean Olympics, and if this most recent scandal is any indication, there likely never will be.

In April 2015, I began speaking with former British powerlifting champion Richard Anthony (Tony) Fitton. After moving to America in 1979, Tony soon became one of the country’s first and largest anabolic steroid dealers. He sold to police officers, U.S. military, gym owners, professional and college football players, professional wrestlers and Hollywood stars. Then, in November 1984, he was arrested at the Tecate Port of Entry after an inspection revealed thousands of doses of various steroids. While such occurred prior to steroids being named Controlled Substances, Tony would be the first person to ever be federally prosecuted and serve time for selling steroids. His life and his story is the topic of my most recent work for which I currently seek publication.

In speaking to Tony, conducting numerous interviews, and spending several hundred hours poring over primary and secondary documents, I think it’s safe to say I’ve almost seen it all—from the desire of your normal every day Joe who hits the gym and uses steroids for cosmetic purposes to widespread government (including America) corruption and cover-ups at the highest levels of international sport.

An alumnus of Pacifica Graduate Institute who holds a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, I bring my book to a close with an examination of a wide array of themes present throughout the text from an archetypal, or mythological, perspective and it is through the kindness of Arthur George that I compose this guest post.

Now when it comes to the topic of anabolic steroids as seen through the perspective of archetypal psychology, I could here as a guest author discuss the use of steroids (or other performance-enhancing drugs) in relationship to the athlete as hero. (Arthur will post shortly on the hero.) I could write about steroids in relationship to changes in gender norms and gender ideals. I could write about the government’s attempts to control steroids. Or the desire for victory as a search for the sacred, for the numinous.

But I choose rather to write here about the clean-sports movement itself. As mentioned, there has never been a clean Olympics. Athletes have always used drugs in one form or the other. Historically, when the IOC or WADA banned a substance, athletes had already moved on to something else. They are most typically (at least) one step ahead of the governing bodies.

When it comes to viewing the clean-sports movement from an archetypal perspective, I discern a particular Athena-Apollo-Hermes mythic configuration. As such, this post will examine the clean-sports movement as enacting, as it were, this triadic constellation.

Let us being with a simple statement, a simple premise: “Drugs have no place in sport.” This notion is fundamental to the clean-sports movement and is, most likely, self-evident.

Here I would like to draw attention to the word “in.”

According to UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff and professor of liberal arts and sciences Mark Johnson, authors of the now classic Metaphors We Live By, “in” betrays the metaphorical concept of a container and with containers “we impose boundaries—marking of territory so that it has an inside and a bounding surface” (31) Activities themselves, say the authors, may be conceived of in terms of containers. In the present case, such activity is sport.

This notion of sport as a container offers segue into a mythological perspective and brings us first to Athena, goddess of justice, wisdom, foresight, and the standards, writes James Hillman, of “science, trades, professions, and government and their unavoidable norms of inclusion and exclusion” (1994, 29).

According to noted mythologist, Karl Kerényi Athena’s name refers a “kind of vessel” (1978, 29). In Hillman’s words, her name refers to “a containing receptacle.” (1994, 27). So too did the clear-eyed goddess invent instruments of containment, limitation, and measurement (op. cit. 19). As the goddess who invents such instruments, she is also responsible for the edges, the boundaries—that which defines the container itself. What does in, what must stay out. Or, in Hillman’s words, “inclusion and exclusion.”

I.e., drugs don’t belong in sports.

Much as Athena is responsible for the creation of containers, and thereby limits, so too does she “appeal to objective norms” as “normalizing belongs to Athenian consciousness” (op. cit. 29). Such normalizing is essential to Athena, goddess of the polis, of civilization, for it is only through the normalizing process, or the process of establishing norms, can civilization be constructed. In contrast, “that which is excessive does not belong in the Athenian polis” (op. cit. 29) since excess, by virtue of being excess, implies that which spreads beyond the limits, the boundaries. That which is excess is outside the container.

In terms of sports, such norms are the rules. The rules define the boundaries of the container that is any given sport. By virtue of being banned, that is, outside the rules that define sports, using drugs is to break the rules. Drug users are cheaters.

The fundamental rhetoric concerning drug use in sports is instructive here. Those who do not take drugs are called “clean.” Those who do are called “dirty.”

In his examination of metaphors that enact the clean/dirty dichotomy, Omar Lizardo understands “clean” in terms of “ordered arrangement.” Dirt, on the other hand, is “matter out of place.” When dirt is transported into that which is supposed to be clean, the ordered arrangement is disturbed. In such metaphorical constructions, when dirt comes into contact with a domain that should be free from dirt, the domain (in this case sport) itself becomes dirty. Thus said domain requires cleaning, for in the process of cleaning order is restored.

This process of cleaning up sport brings the discussion to Apollo, god of light, of reason, rationality, purity. The calm and rational god who rejects, writes Christine Downing, “entanglement in things,” the god who, like Athena, avoids excess (Downing 1993, 85). Also like Athena, Apollo is a god of clearly defined boundaries, is associated with justice, and is concerned with “order and moderation” (88, 89).

The two share yet another trait for where Athenian consciousness can be tyrannical (Hillman 1994, 30) so is Apollo’s purism “tyranny over life itself” (Hillman 1995, 200).

Apollo is a god of healing and a god who brings disease. Let us look here a little more closely. Throughout the history of drug use in sport, those found guilty of using drugs are banned or suspended from participation. Those who bring the dirt into that which is supposed to be clean are sacrificed, or scapegoated, for the sake of the sport. Such is tantamount to removing the dirt, to cleaning up and restoring order.

The Greek term for medicine was pharmakon. The word could also mean drug. The word was cognate to pharmakos, which meant “scapegoat.” And to whom were the pharmakoi sacrificed in Greek ritual?


As Christine Downing defines it, the pharmakos ritual was a “riddance of pollution understood as posing a real threat of contagion” (91). Through the sacrifice of the scapegoat was the dirt removed, or expelled, in order to restore innocence and purity.

Such is the clean-sports movement. Threatening athletes with sanctions is an attempt to keep the container that is sport free from that which is not supposed to belong.


So Apollo and Athena avoid excess. They have no place for that which is more.

Herein lies the rub. The Olympic motto is citius, altius, fortius.

Faster, Higher, Stronger.

The suffix “-er” implies more.

More fast, more high, more strong.

The Olympic motto itself, then, necessitates excess and, as a matter of fact, contrary to those who would define the essence of sport in terms of fair play (itself a social construction with a history going back to Industrial Revolution England and a whole other story), founder of the modern Olympic movement Pierre de Coubertin had this to say: “We know that (sport) tends inevitably toward excess, and that this is its essence, its indelible mark.”

The “-er,” the “more,” is excess.

Athletes, whether Olympic or professional, seek to break records. Spectators want to see records broken.

Come the late 90s, professional baseball was in the tank until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa batted their way closer and closer to Roger Maris’s home run mark. Then Barry Bonds came along. Home runs filled the seats. Fans loved the long ball. As did the owners, for the more the fans filled the seats or sat on their couches watching the game on TV, the more full their wallets.

We as spectators want to see a performance. Athletes perform. Yet taking a substance to enhance a performance is deemed cheating and immoral.

Again, for reasons already discussed, drugs have no place in sport.

Or do they?

Coubertin’s notion that excess is the essence of sport suggest maybe they do.

Here then we come to Hermes, the trickster, the liar, that swift and invisible god.

That drug use in sport is immoral is comprehensible when sport is viewed as a container in terms described. Hermes, says Kerényi, is questionable “from a moral point of view.” (3) On the one hand, we find Hermes present in attempts to catch drug using athletes. As mentioned, such attempts are historically reactive in that the governing body attempts to catch an athlete after s/he used a drug, But athletes are usually steps ahead of the testing. Hermes, the swift-footed can’t be caught, much like sports governing bodies are always trying to catch up to the athletes.

Hermes is also a god of boundaries, but whereas Apollo and Athena create and defend them, Hermes crosses them. Hermes breaks taboos. He disturbs the norms, the order of things. Hermes, the liar, the cheater.

And what else belongs to Hermes?

One of his epithets was agônios, “presider over the games.” (Doty 121) To this we add Kerényi who says the world of winning and losing belong to Hermes, as do fame, happiness, and riches. (23)

Using performance-enhancing drugs, then, may also “belong” to Hermes, for in taking such, an athlete crosses boundaries, breaks taboos, and has a better chance at winning. And who gets the big bucks? Who gets the lucrative sponsorship deals? The fame and the riches?

The winners.

The modern celebration of winning and those who win is to celebrate the gods on high, says David L. Miller. Gods like Zeus, Apollo, Athena. Standing before a group of scholars during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, he said, “All the gods and goddesses, not only the bright and shining ones, people the soul of sport. Their presences, too, are experienced by the athlete, however dimly, however silent, however hidden” (158).

In the context of performance-enhancement we find Hermes as paramount.

Celebrating only the “victorious heroism” of the winners is to remain stuck in a tyrannical one-sidedness of an Athenian-Apollonian mode of consciousness. So too does such ignore, said Miller, the “chthonic modes of athleticism” and gods like Hermes.

The clean-sports movement is one in which sport is defined from within the mode of an Athenian-Apollonian configuration wherein sport is conceived of as a container constructed, as it were, by a series of ordered arrangements, or norms—that is rules. That which disturbs such norms breaks the rules and those who do so are cheaters. Since that which is understood in terms of an ordered arrangement is conceived metaphorically as being clean, that which disturbs such order is dirty. In defending their clean, ordered arrangements of things, Apollo and Athena must stand on guard against that which would disturb such, that which is dirty. In the case of sports, that which is dirty is Hermes.

It is an eternal battle and one that may never be won. Sports never has been clean. While I cannot say with any certainty that sports never will be totally clean, as those within the clean-sports movement hope to achieve, I can at least ask a question:

Should sports be clean?

To rid sports completely of performance-enhancing drugs is to deny Hermes.

Attempting to rid sports of performance-enhancing drugs is an attempt to rid sport of the god of winning and losing himself.

It is to rid sports of the very god who presides over the games themselves.

Works Cited

Calvert, Jonathan. “Revealed: sport’s dirtiest secret; Third of medals won by athletes with suspicious blood tests.” The Sunday Times (London) 2 August 2015.

Doty, William. “Hermes’ Heteronymous Appellations.” Facing the Gods. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc. 1994. 115-134

Downing, Christine. Gods in Our Midst. New York: Crossroad, 1993.

Hillman, James. “On the Necessity of Abnormal Psychology.” Facing the Gods. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1994. 1-38.

–. Kinds of Power. New York: Currency Doubleday, 1995.

Kerényi, Karl. Hermes. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc, 1990.

–. Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2003.

Lizardo, Omar. “The conceptual basis of metaphors of dirt and cleanliness in moral and non-moral reasoning.” Cognitive Linguistics (2012): 367-393.

Miller, David L. “Alienation, Liberation and Sport.” Landry, Fernand and William A.R. Orban. Philosophy, Theology, and History of Sport and Physical Activity. Quebec: Symposia Specialists, 1978. 153-159.

The Sunday Times. The Doping Scandal. 1 August 2015. http://features.thesundaytimes.co.uk/web/public/2015/the-doping-scandal/index.html#/

[Image added by Art]


The Greek Olympic Games included an event called Pankration (meaning “all (forms of) strength”), a form of no-holds-barred submission fighting that illustrates what today we would consider the kind of excess that Josh speaks of. Here one fighter is twisting the other’s arm while getting ready to punch him.




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1 Response to Olympic Mythology I: Josh Bertetta’s Mythological Take on Olympic Sports Doping

  1. Pingback: The Clean-Sports Movement and Performance-Enhancing Drugs: A Mythological Perspective (re-blogged) | The Story of the Four

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