by Erkki Vettenniemi

Vol. 2 2011, pages 119–136
Published December 14, 2011


In the early 1930s, the Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi endorsed a medical substance that allegedly enhanced athletic performance. Sixty years later, one such endorsement was discovered and, in a rather sensationalist manner, interpreted by a Swedish newspaper as an infringement of anti-doping rules. The scoop triggered a brief war of words between Finland and Sweden. My article explores the two incidents that, taken together, testify to the alarmingly anachronistic nature of today’s dominant doping discourses. What was once an innocuous drug experiment or an advertisement of a non-controversial pharmaceutical can suddenly be construed as a form of cheating. In a further ironic twist, Nurmi’s purported drug of choice appears to have worked only as a placebo, and according to a contemporary source, it had been enough for the Finn to get paid for the endorsement without so much as touching the concoction. Yet although the nine-time Olympic champion merely violated the outdated amateur rules, his reputation can probably never fully recover from the posthumous drug slur that has been uncritically disseminated for two decades.

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About the Author

ERKKI VETTENNIEMI is a doctoral student in the Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä. He received his first doctorate in social sciences at the University of Tampere in 2001. Having switched his main attention from Soviet studies to sport history, he has published three monographs (in Finnish) and edited a volume of Paavo Nurmi’s collected works. His areas of interest include sport, cultural history and issues of performance enhancing drugs. He will defend his doctoral thesis entitled “Tinkering with Drugs: Essays on Drugs in Sport and the Nature of Sports” in 2014.


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