Athletes taking pills? An old story.

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Athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs. Growing concern about a reliance on pills for relief from pain, stress and anxiety. Medical leaders alarmed about drug fads, calling on doctors to exercise restraint when prescribing.

Headlines from 2007? Try 1957. Today, the drugs are OxyContin, steroids and Ritalin. Fifty years ago, they were tranquilizers, sedatives and amphetamines: America was a Cold War nation in need of both pep and relief.

And while the context is different today (we have a larger and more complex array of drugs), the underlying issues are unchanged: Americans, athletes as well as nonathletes, grappled then as now with the proper role of drugs in their lives.

In 1957, the American Medical Association began an investigation of “pep pills” in sports. In track and field alone, a dozen runners had run the four-minute mile in the three years since Roger Bannister first did it. How could this be possible, the doctors wanted to know, without stimulating drugs? Were athletes using amphetamines to stimulate the nervous system, reduce fatigue and improve performance?

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