‘Do we want to see the highest possible achievements by men and women who do not use performance-enhancing drugs? If so, what counts as performance-enhancing? If sports fans really want to see achievement that they can relate to, perhaps athletes should be restricted to diets of pizza and beer, and be required to have 40-hour-a-week desk jobs’ – David Epstein in Sports Illustrated
At the London Olympics 2012, more samples are expected to be collected and analysed for ‘doping’ than any other previous game. With more than 150 scientists and 1000 lab technicians working around the clock, the WADA approved lab at Essex intends to do everything to uphold the fairness and integrity of the games. Really?!!
Despite the ban imposed by WADA and knowledge of alleged ‘detrimental health effects’ of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), widespread use by athletes is still very much rampant. It is an undeniable fact that testing athletes ‘out of’ and ‘in competition’ and by handing out bans, we have been unable to stop the use of these drugs.
How rampant is the use of performance enhancing drugs?
In 1992, Vicky Rabinowicz conducted interviews of Olympic athletes; most were of the opinion that almost all medal winning athletes were ‘on drugs’1.
According to the International Amateur Athletic Federation’s own admittance, in any major competition only 10-15% of athletes are tested for doping. In such a scenario, the actual samples turning out be positive could be even higher if all athletes were to be tested.
Athletes, coaches, team doctors, physical therapists and sports federations all know that everyone’s ‘doing it’. Research too supports the general notion that use of performance enhancing substances and methods is quite rampant in competitive sports.
• In 2004, Bents et. al. reported in their study almost half of college hockey players using/or having previously used stimulants like ephedrine, amphetamines and pseudoephedrine2.
• Sottas and his fellow researchers reported 48% prevalence rate for ‘blood doping’ in endurance athletes3.
• Scarpino et. al. in their study on Italian athletes reported 10% of all athletes having used anabolics or amphetamines at national or international stage; other drugs commonly used were bronchodilators and methods like blood doping4.
• Thevis and co-workers found usage of tetrahydrocannabinol (cannabis) and other stimulants in 10% of young athletes aspiring to reach elite levels5.
• Mottram, David and George report a low level of positive samples for anabolics. However, the authors argue that athletes tend to take these in training. And, it not being easy to conduct surprise tests in some countries, the results are not a true reflection of the actual prevalence of anabolics use6.
Upholding the spirit of the game
According to WADA’s anti-doping code, the ‘spirit of the game’ is defined as follows:
‘Celebration of human spirit, body and mind’ characterized by the following values:
- Ethics, fair play and honesty
- Excellence in performance
- Character and education
- Fun and joy
- Dedication and commitment
- Respect for rules and laws
- Respect for self and other participants
- Community and solidarity
The code further states that ‘doping is contrary to the spirit of the game’.
So, what’s wrong with the anti-doping code?
There are vast differences of opinion between everyone concerned with elite sports (let alone, sports medicine researchers) about the validity of the anti-doping measures in place. There are those who advocate ‘ban them all and hand out lifetime bans, even for first time offenders’.
Others recommend ‘legalizing them all so that some sort of sanity could returns to their use’.
Legalising will ensure that research is conducted to study the drugs in detail and institution of proper dosage regimen. This will ensure that side effects are kept to the minimum and thus athletes can be effectively stopped from ‘abusing’ them. Legalising PEDs will, more importantly, ‘even out the playing field’.
An increasing number of people are beginning to think that banning PEDs does not solve the problem. In fact, it compounds the problem. As opposed to WADA’s aim of making the games ‘fair’, anti-doping measures make it unfair in the sense that the athletes that have used PEDs but aren’t caught (due to vested interests or otherwise!) get a massive unfair advantage.
Also, if you ever thought banning PEDs will make the contest even, think again. Genetics and some other factors like access to better training and support facilities have a bigger impact on the result of the contest.
Here are some questions to ponder over:
1. Natural levels of erythropoietin (EPO, increases red cell count, improves delivery of oxygen to muscles, helps endurance sports) and growth hormone (builds muscle, strength and power) vary widely in different individuals. There are those unlucky one in whom the levels are very low. Isn’t that unfair?
2. Athletes of Jamaican descent have more % of fast twitch muscle making them awesome sprinters. Isn’t that unfair on the ones that don’t have that genetic gift?
3. Athletes born at higher altitudes have huge chest cavity, more EPO production, more packed cell volume (PCV) and thus better delivery of oxygen to exercising muscles. All these physiological changes take place to deal with rarefied atmosphere at higher altitudes. This gives athletes born at higher altitudes an edge in endurance sports over other athletes. Isn’t’ that unfair?
4. Athletes from cash rich federations and with more endorsements can afford to have access to better training facilities and support staff. Isn’t that unfair?
5. Athletes with money can travel to higher altitudes to train and acquire an edge over the ones that can’t. Isn’t that unfair?
Add to the list personal attributes of athletes like 7 feet tall basketball players and the massive feet of Ian Thorpe and you will realise that with genetics favouring some, it can never a level playing field. So, the argument that use of PEDs makes the games unfair doesn’t hold much water since the games are already stacked in favour of the genetically gifted!
And, what happens when gene doping becomes a full-fledged reality? There will no stopping the unfair advantage that the genetically engineered ‘super-athletes’ will receive!
It all very well to say that WADA is making an effort to make sports a fair contest for all participants. But to say that we have been successful in preventing use of PEDs by conducting tests to determine ‘cheats’ is far from the truth.
The use of PEDs continues to be widespread amongst athletes. So much so that if you’ve ever worked up close with an athlete, you will know that most of the times clocked on the sprints, distances achieved on the javelin throws, or the ridiculous poundage lifted on the snatches can never be a product of genetics and brilliant training regimens alone.
There is a school of thought which suggests that legalizing PEDs will ensure a level playing field. With some vested interest not testing athletes from cash rich federations, you can bet your bottom dollar that not everything that’s going on is in ‘the spirit of the game’.
A friend of mine said the other day, ‘there shouldn’t be any drug tests and everyone should be allowed to do whatever it takes to enhance their performances… Maybe, the Olympics would then be really worth watching…. I’d pay a million dollars to go watch the 100 metres dash then…’
Someone turned around and said, ‘well, young lady, you’ve already been watching drug loaded 100 metres sprints for quite some time, …just that they never told you’!
Guess that sums up the way everyone has become so sceptical of the ‘anti-doping policy’.
(1) Raboniwicz V. Athletes and Drugs: A separate pace? Pyschol Today 1992; 25:52-53.
(2) Bents RT, Tokish JM, Goldberg L. Ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and amphetamine prevalence in college hockey players: most report performance-enhancing use. Phys Sportsmed 2004; 32(9):30-34.
(3) Sottas PE, Robinson N, Fischetto G, Dolle G, Alonso JM, Saugy M. Prevalence of blood doping in samples collected from elite track and field athletes. Clin Chem 2011; 57(5):762-769.
(4) Scarpino V, Arrigo A, Benzi G, Garattini S, La VC, Bernardi LR et al. Evaluation of prevalence of “doping” among Italian athletes. Lancet 1990; 336(8722):1048-1050.
(5) Thevis M, Sauer M, Geyer H, Sigmund G, Mareck U, Schanzer W. Determination of the prevalence of anabolic steroids, stimulants, and selected drugs subject to doping controls among elite sport students using analytical chemistry. J Sports Sci 2008; 26(10):1059-1065.
(6) Mottram DR, George AJ. Anabolic steroids. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 2000; 14(1):55-69.