Using drugs to enhance performance appears to be becoming more and more common in sports and media coverage as athletes compete for any kind of edge they can achieve, aware that their bodies can give a little bit extra. Recent history contains some very well publicised cases, from Ben Johnson’s 1988 steroid assisted 100 metres in Seoul, to Floyd Landis being stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory not to mention Lance Armstrong’s high profile fall from grace. While there are of course strict measures in place, there are clearly flaws in the system. Boxing’s drug testing systems were heavily criticised in the wake of the cancelled Pacquio–Mayweather fight in 2010, Victor Conte – who provided sprinter Dwain Chambers with illegal drugs – called boxing’s system “pathetic” adding “the testing that is being utilised in boxing is virtually worthless”. These, however, are elite sportsmen at the top of their games and in the public eye; less publicised is how performance enhancing drugs affect the amateur athlete working out in their local gym.
A simple fact is that performance enhancing drugs will alter the body’s physiology for anybody who chooses to take them and if Erythropoietin (EPO) can enable Tour de France cyclists to pedal for longer, or steroids give Olympic sprinters more explosive power, then they could do the same for the average competitor. Furthermore, not all substances that enhance performance are banned, and very few involve criminality, so if a legal tablet promises to improve one’s triathlon time, or help increase the weight on a bench press then naturally this could be very tempting. Beyond the ethics, the individual’s choices should be informed by the health implications and legality. While using performance enhancing drugs may enable the individual to train longer, harder or faster and add more muscle, stamina, and power – what is the price they will pay for this? Also, can it be considered ‘cheating’ if an individual is only competing against them self in order to improve on a personal best, or for self-esteem? This article will touch on how taking performance enhancing drugs and other supplements can impact on the average individual legally, ethically, and health-wise.
“It has the potential to improve sporting performance.”
“It represents an actual or potential health risk.”
“Its use is contrary to the ‘spirit of sport’.”
These three rules have a fairly broad application and WADA’s prohibited list covers well over a hundred substances, from alcohol (banned in archery) to zeranol (a mushroom fungus). The main focus is generally on issues such as anabolic steroids and blood-boosting agents, but as the list covers many basic ‘high-street drugs’, which are perfectly legal and may not pose a health risk, a WADA banned substance could, theoretically, be proven to boost performance and be neither harmful or illegal.
There are substances which can give an individual an edge without having to cross the line. As previously mentioned, the UK sports nutrition market is expanding so naturally there have been massive advances in nutritional sciences and ‘clean’ substances have been developed so that athletes do not have to resort to those that are banned. One ‘clean’ sports supplement which has received a great deal of coverage and popularity is creatine. Creatine is also a naturally occurring compound found in red meat and made from amino acids, the building blocks of protein, promising faster recovery and increased muscle growth. With no evidence of serious side-effects and proven performance enhancing qualities, creatine seems to have become an acceptable ‘cheat’ when looked at in this way. Studies show it satisfies the safety aspect and research shows that although creatine does not directly impact muscle mass, it does enable the individual to train harder – now becoming one of the UK’s most widely used sports supplements. Another widely used legal substance is caffeine, however caffeine was on the WADA’s banned list up until 2004. Studies have confirmed caffeine not only enhances alertness, it mobilises fat stores, sparing the muscle’s glycogen supply and boosting endurance. Being effective and fully legal, major manufacturers (eg. Lucozade) quickly added it to products when the WADA removed it from their banned list.
One newer supplement which promises boosts to both muscle and endurance is beta-alanine, which is legal and widely available for purchase as it is a naturally occurring amino acid. As it is relatively new on the market, however, it is lacking long term studies to prove the benefits or risks of supplementation. Early indications have found through studies that supplementing beta-alanine improved the test subject’s levels of performance and stimulated lean muscle mass however it may be years before definitive studies are produced. Reported side effects have included hot flushes, though again long term side effects have yet to be reported or proven. Another potential breakthrough comes from hydroxy methylbutyrate (HMB) which has been named as the ‘new creatine’, it sport-legal and promises to limit the breakdown of protein, thereby enhancing muscle size and strength, promoting fat loss and easing exercise induced muscle damage. HMB is a natural product, being found in grapefruit, alfalfa, and some fish and is already available in some supplements, but as with beta-alanine it is yet to have conclusive studies carried out. Noted results have mentioned that HMB has a minor effect on strength, body composition, muscle damage and exercise performance.
For anyone looking to build muscle, strength and speed, anabolic steroids have long been the preferred option. Anabolic steroids have been notorious in sport since testosterone was first synthesised in Germany in the 1930s, causing hundreds of failed tests, including Dwain Chambers’ positive results for the once undetectable ‘designer’ steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). Anabolic steroids are far from being an elite-only option, they are very popular down the ladder on the amateur level. University of Glamorgan research found that 70% of heavy lifters in South Wales had used at some point. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports 3 million users in the US, with an estimated 1 million in the UK. While it is predominantly gym-users who are involved in steroids, it spreads further, it seems that wherever there is any kind of competition, there is temptation, and while there are no serious studies into usage at grass-roots levels it appears to be acknowledged that it certainly is there. While banned in sport, steroids are not illegal, they can only be sold by pharmacists with a doctor’s prescription – it is illegal to possess or import them for personal use. Possession with intent to supply is illegal and can result in up to 14 year sentences.
The lack of criminality is a factor, but the main reason steroids are so widely used is because they are so effective. While experts agree and research show that “there is no doubt they do work”, it is also clear that there is “a hefty price to pay”, is has been shown that intensive usage has potentially life-threatening consequences with evidence showing a large increase in the risk of organ damage. Skin conditions, baldness, testicle shrinkage and pain, bruising, scarring or infection from careless or incompetent injecting have all been recognised among the risks the steroids pose to the health, along with psychological issues such as depression. There have been reports of depression and suicide in teenage steroid users, but little systematic evidence. A 1992 review found that anabolic-androgenic steroids may both relieve and cause depression. The temptation to get involved in steroids still remains strong, however, as new substances constantly appear on the market promising to do the job better and cleaner. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) – a relatively newcomer to the UK – being labelled as a ‘wonder-drug’ DHEA is a ‘natural’ steroid which synthesises a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland, it promises to enhance muscle mass while reducing body-fat stores of the user. While banned by the WADA, DHEA is legal to buy from many major UK supplementation companies although as a relatively new drug, there is very little research about the effects, however the research there is suggesting possible risks such as increased cancer risk.
While it is clear on an elite level that being caught using these performance enhancing drugs is classed as cheating and there are guidelines explicitly stating what is and is not allowed, less clear is how to evaluate that at a grass-roots level. If two people of the same level are pitted against each other and one trains effectively and has a good diet, he will perform better than the other who consumes a poor diet and takes supplements, even those with proven results. While it then may seem that supplementing along with a good diet and training programme will provide even greater results, the possible side effects involved with many of the performance enhancing substances seem to negate these benefits and overshadow them with health risks.
Others, however, continue with the issue that doping will always be contrary to the spirit of sport and it is unfair that ‘clean’ athletes would be denied fair and equal competition. Furthermore, any kind of allowance towards performance enhancing substances in sport would be irresponsible due to the lack of research in many areas and the wide variety of substances available that could be used and that removing the taboo of drug taking would endanger the athlete’s health.
While it can be argued that it is not cheating if one is merely aiming to compete to improve their own performance on a personal level, once they enter a stage of competing against others, on any level, then the ethics of performing while having a synthetic edge over the other athletes would call this an unfair advantage.
Nabil Hassan. (2010). Victor Conte slams professional boxing’s drug testing. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/boxing/8485892.stm. Last accessed 10 April 2010.
BBC. (2006). Bodybuilder steroid misuse alarm. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_east/5057402.stm. Last accessed 16 April 2010.
O’Leary, J (2001). Drugs and doping in sport: socio-legal perspectives . UK: Cavendish Publishing.
WADA. (2009). Whereabouts. Available: http://www.wada-ama.org/en/ADAMS/ADAMS-Production/IFNFIPC-User/Whereabouts/. Last accessed 10 April 2010.
WADA. (2009). World Anti-Doping Code. Available: http://www.wada-ama.org/en/World-Anti-Doping-Program/Sports-and-Anti-Doping-Organizations/The-Code/. Last accessed 10 April 2010.
Francaux, M. (1999). Effects of training and creatine supplement on muscle strength and body mass . European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 80 (2).
Halliday, J. (2006). Mainstream drives UK sports nutrition, but do the claims hold up? Available: http://www.nutraingredients.com/Consumer-Trends/Mainstream-drives-UK-sports-nutrition-but-do-the-claims-hold-up. Last accessed 12 April 2010.
Beck et al. (2006). The Acute Effects of a Caffeine-Containing Supplement on Strength, Muscular Endurance, and Anaerobic Capabilities. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 20 (3).
Applegate, E. (1997). Search for the Competitive Edge: A History of Dietary Fads and Supplements . The Journal of Nutrition . 127 (5).
Hoffman et al. (2006). Effect of creatine and beta-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes. International Journal of Sport, Nutrition, Exercise & Metabolism. 16 (4).
Pittler, M. (2004). Dietary supplements for body-weight reduction: a systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 79 (4).
Panton, L. (2009). Nutritional supplementation of the leucine metabolite hydroxy methylbutyrate (HMB) during resistance training. Nutrition. 16 (9).
Wilson, W (2001). Doping in elite sport: the politics of drugs in the Olympic movement. USA: Human Kinetics.
Birchard, K. (2006). Past, present, and future of drug abuse at the Olympics. The Lancet. 356 (3).
Berning, J et al. (2004). Anabolic Steroid Usage in Athletics: Facts, Fiction, and Public Relations. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 18 (4).
NIDA. (2008). Steroids (Anabolic). Available: http://www.drugabuse.gov/DrugPages/Steroids.html. Last accessed 16 April 2010.
Faigenbaum, A et al. (1998). Anabolic Steroid Use by Male and Female Middle School Students . Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 101 (5).
Yesalis, C (2000). Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise. 2nd ed. USA: Human Kinetics.
Perry, P. J. (1990). Illicit anabolic steroid use in athletes: A case series analysis. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 18 (3).
Parssinen, M. (2002). Steroid Use and Long-Term Health Risks in Former Athletes . Sports Medicine. 32 (2).
Corrigan, B. (2002). DHEA and Sport. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 12 (4).
Dimeo, P (2007). A history of drug use in sport: beyond good and evil. USA: Routledge.
Taylor, L. (2009). Sheffield United suspend Paddy Kenny after keeper tests positive for ephedrine. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2009/jul/07/paddy-kenny-sheffield-united. Last accessed 16 April 2010.
Jones, A. (2006). Stimulant use in Sports.. American Journal on Addictions. 7 (4).
Clarkson, P. (1997). Drugs and sport. Research Findings and Limitations.. Sports Medicine. 24 (6).
Catlin, D. (1996). Performance-Enhancing Drugs, Fair Competition, and Olympic Sport. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 276 (3),
Savulescu, J. (2003). Why we should allow performance enhancing drugs in sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 38 (10),
Boxill, J (2003). Sports Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.