Drug Use in Competitive Sports

What is Doping?

The use of drugs is an attempt to enhance sporting performance and is often referred to as doping. The word 'dope' originated from a primitive South African alcoholic drink that was used as a stimulant in ceremonial dances. In today's sporting context, doping refers to the use of performance-enhancing chemicals of banned substances or methods that may enhance performance by an athlete.

The drive to compete and win is as old as humankind. Athletes throughout history have sought foods and potions to increase their performance. Greek wrestlers ate huge quantities of meat to build muscle. The Norse warriors of the Berserkers ate hallucinogenic mushrooms to gear up for battle. Greek gladiators took dope to help make their fights sufficiently vigorous and bloody. Chariot racers would feed their horses a mixture of dope to make them run faster. For as long as competitive sports have existed athletes have tried to get any edge the competition. They desire to be more successful at any cost.

The first recorded death from the use of doping in sport was in 1886 when a cyclist died from an overdose of trimethyl. In 1904 Olympics marathon runner Thomas Hicks was using a mixture of brandy and strychnine and nearly died. Heroin, cocaine, and caffeine were used widely used until heroin and cocaine became available only on prescription. During the 1930's it was Amphetamines that replaced strychnine. In the 1950s the Soviet Olympic team used male hormones to increase strength and power. The American's developed steroids as a response.

In the 1952 Winter Olympics, several speed skaters became ill and needed medical attention after taking amphetamines. Danish cyclist, Kurt Jensen during the 1960 Olympics collapsed and died from an amphetamine overdose. During the 1970's anabolic steroids became the form of doping. By the 1980s, as non-athletes also discovered the body enhancing properties of steroids.

During the 1988 Summer Olympics, Ben Johnson shattered the world record in the 100-meter dash. His medal was stripped the day after when he tested for anabolic steroids in a post-race drug screening. He is still fighting for his right to compete again.

The 1998 Tour de France was hit by the worst drug scandal in its history. The Top Flight Festina team was thrown out of the Tour after the team masseur Willy Voet was was arrested when performance-enhancing drugs were found in his team car. In the end, one-third of all teams in the race either withdrew or were expelled because of illegal drug abuse.

Anabolic Steroids

Steroids are drugs that have been derived from hormones. Anabolic steroids comprise only one group of these hormonal drugs. It has been proven that Anabolic Steroids do not improve agility, skill or cardiovascular capacity. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of many steroids for treating specific disorders. Anabolic Steroids are synthetic derivatives of testosterone, a natural male hormone. The hormone's anabolic effects help the body retain dietary protein, thus aiding growth of muscles, bones, and skin. The androgenic characteristics of testosterone are associated with masculinity. They foster the maturing of the male reproductive system in puberty, the growth of body hair and the deepening of the voice.

Those who choose to take steroids put themselves at risk to more than 70 side effects ranging in from liver cancer to acne. They can have both psychological and physical reactions to the steroids. The liver, cardiovascular and reproductive systems are most at risk for steroid use.

Steroids used by males can cause withered testicles, sterility, and impotence. Females risk acquiring irreversible masculine traits, breast reduction, and sterility. The psychological effects in both sexes include aggressive, combative behavior and depression. Some of side-effects will not show up for years, such as heart attacks and strokes. Used during adolescence steroids could cause arrested bone development.

The leading home run slugger for the last two years, St. Loius Cardinal Mark McGwire, has admitted to taking a testosterone-producing pill called Androstenedione or Andro. It is legal in baseball but illegal in most other sports competitions. Where steroids are synthetic, Andro is a naturally produced adrenal hormone available over the counter. The liver converts it to testosterone spurring muscle production. Long term side-effects are unknown.

A form of performance-enhancing practice that does not include chemicals is called blood doping. Oxygenated blood is drawn from an athlete's body several weeks prior to competition. The night before a race or match the blood is reintroduced into the body allowing greater feats of muscular performance from the increased red blood cells and added oxygenation. This practice can cause very dangerous levels of blood hemoglobin to collect in the bloodstream. It can cause heart attacks and strokes. There have been several cyclists have died from this practice. There are risks associated with the transfusion of blood or blood substances including allergic reactions, kidney damage, fever, jaundice, the transmission of infectious diseases like hepatitis and AIDS, and overloading the circulatory system causing metabolic shock.

Detecting Drugs

Testing for illegal substances has been used to fight doping, but athletes have been trying to hide or mask their use from officials. Testing for illegal substances has improved and now labs can detect a wide range of drugs or other stimulants. There is now a test that can even determine if the body has high hemoglobin levels caused by blood doping.

There is still no test available that can detect growth hormones. Some over the counter drugs, including cold medications, may contain stimulants that in large enough quantities act like amphetamines and will show up on a drug screening. Several well-known athletes have sued after wrongly be accused of drug use.


It is unfortunate that athletes feel they have to risk their lives and practice doping for that small added edge. It is not surprising. Top athletes are adored, compensated greatly, and made role models. As the rewards of athletic glory are so high, there will be those willing to risk everything to gain them. To gain a more competitive edge, nothing works better than proper training, proper rest, good nutrition, correct technique, and good coaching.