Doping in sport wasn’t new when the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome came around, and cycling had led the way with the first recorded death of modern times – that of a cyclist who ingested trimethyl in 1886. The Olympics itself had seen near-fatality in 1904 when marathon runner Thomas Hicks overdosed on brandy and strychnine. Amphetamines were used in the 1930s, and in the 1950s Soviet Olympic teams were giving athletes male hormones to increase strength and power, while Americans slyly countered with new-fangled steroids.
During the 1960 team time-trial 100 km road race, Danish cyclist Knud (known as Kurt) Enemark Jensen collapsed and fractured his skull, and was declared dead in hospital shortly afterwards. He was the first Olympian to die from a drug overdose and the first athlete to die in competition since marathon man Francisco Lazaro in 1913, Jensen had been taking a drug cocktail – supposedly prescribed by his doctor for medical reasons – that included amphetamine and the powerful stimulant Ronicol. Keen to avoid controversy, pathologists discreetly gave the cause of death as heat stroke. According to insiders, Kurt Jensen was the unlucky one, as most Olympic cyclists were doping themselves as a matter of routine.
If Jensen had a positive legacy, it was the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban doping, following the recommendation of a medical commission it had set up as a result of his untimely death. However, the real tragedy was that this decision merely served as a starting gun signaling commencement of a never-ending battle of wits between drug testers and athletes determined to cheat their way to victory, using ever more sophisticated chemicals and techniques to outwit the authorities. But doping was not made illegal in pro cycling until 1965, since when the sport has been dogged by seemingly endless doping scandals.
When did Kurt Jensen die: August 26 1960
Where did Kurt Jensen die: Rome, Italy
You should know: Kurt Jensen would not be the last competitive cyclist to die from performance-enhancing drug abuse. Notable future casualties include top British rider Tom Simpson, who died on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. An increasing number of current or former professional cyclists have suffered premature death from heart attacks thought to be associated with excessive drug-taking.