“For two years, I took EPO, growth hormone, anabolic steroids, testosterone, amphetamine. Just about everything. That was part of the job.” – Erwan Mentheour, Cyclist
Since the beginning of the Olympic games in Ancient Greece, athletes have taken major steps to become better, faster and stronger than their competitors. Egyptians ingested the ground rear hooves of the Abyssinian mule to improve their performance and Greek athletes ingested mushrooms for their performance-enhancing properties.
Today, the use of performance-enhancing substances in sports have come to be known internationally as â€œdoping,â€ and pertain to the use of drugs by athletes to have a competitive edge, and include any substance, either natural or synthetic, foodstuff or supplement, legal or illegal, that when introduced to the human body gives the user a competitive advantage, according to the CASA National Commission on Sports and Substance Abuse.
The list of performance-enhancing drugs is fairly extensive, according to Dr. Gary Wadler, who serves on the committee that determines The World Anti-Doping Agencyâ€™s (WADA) banned substances list. Some of the most common drugs used among the elite athletesâ€”the ones we worry about the most, include anabolic steroids, human growth hormones (hGH) and Erythropoietin (EPO), he said. For CASAâ€™s 2000 Report â€œWinning at any Cost: Doping in Olympic Sports,â€ Dr. Wadler identified their known side effects, but he says that many of the side effects of these drugs are still unknown.
Anabolic Steroids: Physiological/Adverse Effects
The anabolic steroids used by athletes are synthetic derivatives of the male sex hormone testosterone. Athletes use steroids to achieve increases in muscle mass and strength and/or to improve recovery from training by decreasing tissue breakdown. Anabolic steroids act by binding to specific receptors inside a cell to enhance or inhibit the expression of specific genes. Adverse effects of steroid use include: liver tumors, testicular atrophy, development of abnormal breast tissue in males and masculinizing effects in females (increased body hair, deepening of voice).
Human Growth Hormones (hGH): Physiological/Adverse Effects
Growth hormone is a peptide hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. The release of hGH is controlled by many factors including diet, exercise, nutrition, drugs and various biological feedback mechanisms. Growth hormone appeals to athletes who are trying to increase their lean body mass and shorten recovery time, but to date there are no well-controlled studies of hGH demonstrating actual improvements in strength and endurance. Side effects that have been reported include headache, enlargement of the adenoids with snoring and further growth of hands, feet and face.
Erythropoietin (EPO): Physiological/Adverse Effects
EPO stimulates bone marrow stem cells to produce red blood cells, which in turn transport oxygen from the lungs to all organs of the body, including the muscles and enhances aerobic power. EPO found its way into sports as an alternative to blood doping, the practice of intravenously infusing blood into an individual in order to induce an elevated red blood cell count and increase their total aerobic power by increasing the transport of oxygen to their working muscles. The abuse of EPO raises both the red blood count and the thickness of the blood, which can stimulate the effects of certain blood diseases and raise the possibility of stroke and heart attack.
The athletes are not using them for therapeutic purposes. They conjure up their own craziness and use them in massive quantities. A normal dose may be 10, and they may take 100 or 1000. They also combine the drugs, one on top of another – term known as “stacking,” Dr. Wadler said.
Doping has definitely been around for a while, but today it seems like you can’t follow the Olympic Games without seeing some sort of drug scandal. While there used to be a lack of any effective mechanism to police the use of banned substances in the Olympics, sports governing bodies, such as WADA, are cracking down on doping. Before the iconic opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, 12 cross-country skiers including two Americans and a former gold medalist from Germany were suspended for failed blood tests. The athletes were suspended five days each for elevated levels of hemoglobin, the red blood cell that increases endurance. The test results raised the possibility of blood doping with synthetic hemoglobin to increase oxygen in the muscles. Just last year, Olympic track star, Marion Jones, was stripped of the record five medals she won in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, after she admitted to having used steroids.
“You have to view this as giving yourself a disease,” said Dr. Wadler. “In the ’80s, I reported a series of deaths from EPO. The cyclists, all in their 20s, ‘mysteriously’ died after taking EPO.”
One of the problems that still remains is that there is no solid evidence on doping in the Olympics and how many athletes actually use [performance-enhancement] drugs-all of the evidence is anecdotal, according to Sue Foster, CASA’s Vice President and Director of Policy Research and Analysis. But, there are enough reports and tests to show that it’s a serious health and safety issue, she said.
The stakes are so high for the athletes to be number one, and there’s so much money fueling the competition, that the athletes are willing to risk their health – and even their lives. In fact, half of all Olympic athletes surveyed during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta admitted that they would be willing to take a drug – even if it would kill them eventually – as long as it would let them win every event they entered five years in a row, as reported by Sports Illustrated.
The mentality of winning at any cost still persists today, according to Dr. Wadler. “Athletes live in a world of invincibility and denial. They’ll hear me say it’s dangerous, but their risk-reward ratio is so distorted that they disregard the risk even if it means shortening their life.”
Related Links and Resources:
- FAUST’S GOLD: Inside the East German Doping Machine by Steven Ungerleider, Ph.D. (St. Martin’s Press)
- Dr. Steven Ungerleider GDR Collection in Honor of Professor Werner Franke and Brigitte Berendonk – Archive of documentation pertaining to East German doping, housed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
- The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University — A Report by The CASA National Commission on Sports and Substance Abuse “Winning at Any Cost: Doping in Olympic Sports”
- Scientific American, “The Doping Dilemma”
- Science Daily, “Mice Can Sense Oxygen Through Their Skin” — A look at new experiments involving EPO
- BBC News, Olympic Challenge — A Frontline Scotland piece investigates
- International Herald Tribune, “Gene that hides doping poses predicament for testers”