Is it time to legalise the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sport?
I just want to start by saying I could talk about this subject all day. I could give you 100 examples for every point discussed. I would like to state quite clearly, I am not advocating athletes taking drugs of any kind. I am not encouraging their use and, and in many instances, I will give one sided discussions to illustrate points. I really am just brushing the surface of the topic.
My love for sport is undeniable. I would have been an amazing world champion and sports superstar, I would have worked the media, been charismatic, won awards, done good charity work, gotton massive sponsorship deals. I would have been great role model, started a foundation, they would have statues built of me and my name would be known the world over, not just by my 350million Instagram followers.
There was just one small problem and that was, I wasn’t good enough!
When I played rugby, I was too small, when I swam I was too short, when I cycled I was too heavy, when I sprinted my muscles were too slow twitch and when I wanted to run long distance I realised being born in Sheffield and not at altitude in Kenya wasn’t going to help me.
At the elite level we can pretty much work out what sport someone will have a chance of success at. There are always exceptions, but you could probably group athletes by their appearance, height, weight, shape etc.
We have somatotyping, we have been doing it for many years. Endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph, there are even somatotype charts that identify ideal sports for different body shapes.
However, there is no magical formula that ensures success in sport.
Identifying your bodies ideal sport doesn’t guarantee anything. In the majority of sports, a good big one will beat a good little one. So, if there was a bigger version of yourself you would probably lose to them. Then you factor in the likes of determination, single mindedness, skill, etc.
People, (I used to call them friends), told me I didn’t try hard enough. The truth is I couldn’t have tried anymore, I trained conscientiously and gave 100% whenever it was needed in competition. The formula for success is much more complex (but fundamentally very simple) and when investigated into, it is only then that you realize that success in sport is almost impossible for the vast majority of us.
Even if we were all the same, there are 7 billion of us on earth and counting and so we cannot all win. Unluckily as I said, most of us have no chance!
The feeling of winning is much nicer than that of losing. Forget all the cliches about experiencing the lows to appreciate the highs, it’s the taking part that counts, running your own race. The type of athlete that is willing to take performance enhancing drugs, which will be referred to as PEDs from now on, is the type of athlete that wants to win.
Athletes across all sports choose to dope for a wide range of social, emotional and financial reasons. Maybe not in the first instance but certainly at some point in an athlete’s career, finances become important. Maybe, arguably the biggest affecting factor.
Sport is big business, and its stars are becoming billionaires.
The way of the amateur and don’t forget that the majority of amateurs were affluent folk who could afford the time to train, eat and compete and didn’t want the working class doing anything but work! The way of the amateur is long gone now and every week we hear of sports stars signing new eye watering contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars or winning a Tennis Grand Slam and its multimillion dollar prize money. Even the Olympics relaxed their amateur status rule for athletes from 1972 onwards.
The desire to win, motivated by economic incentives such as prizes and large sponsorship deals, or social pressures such as national gold medal expectations or pleasing your family, ensure there is a constant market for drugs that will improve performance.
Access to PED’s has never been as easy, walk into the right type of gym (or wrong as it were) and you will soon be approached by someone offering you something. Go to a chemist in some countries and you will be offered PED’s as easily as you buy paracetamol.
With state organized doping programs by some countries, and sports such as cycling, body building, baseball and american football with a reputation of significant drug use at the elite level. The whole PED situation has spiraled out of control.
To combat the use of drugs in sport, the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA), was established in 1999. It doesn’t work alone and works in partnership with many agencies around the world such as the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and UK Anti-Doping.
WADA has banned about 200 performance-enhancing substances and methods.
A substance can be considered for inclusion on the World Anti-Doping Code Prohibited List if it meets two of the following three criteria:
1) it is, or potentially is performance-enhancing,
2) it is, or potentially is harmful to the athlete’s health, and
3) it violates the spirit of sport
and they go on to expand this spirit into 10 areas that I will mention later.
WADA through extensive scientific analysis makes the final determination on whether a substance or method is included on the prohibited list.
Almost every professional sport has been affected by claims of doping, and those that haven’t probably been investigated enough.
Doping in sport is nothing new, PED’s can be traced as far back as the ancient Olympics, where athletes would drink ‘magic’ potions or eat special foods to gain an edge over their rivals.
Most forms of what we would call cheating nowadays were perfectly acceptable up until quite recent times. These practices were well known about and not frowned upon. Tom Hicks (eventually) won the 1904 Olympic marathon, this was a crazy race and one that deserves its own film which at sometime I will endeavor to make. Anyway, back to Tom Hicks, he ran aided with several doses of strychnine (a common rat poison, which stimulates the nervous system when taken in small amounts) and this was mixed with brandy. He was seen taking it, admitted to taking it, and the race officials deemed it OK and he won gold. Incidentally the 1904 games were the first Olympics to actually award medals.
It is only in more recent modern times that authorities have attempted to ban their use. The first athlete to test positive for the use of a PED was Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, a Swedish pentathlete at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He lost his bronze medal for alcohol use, after consuming ‘two beers to steady his nerves’.
I think it is a good idea to understand a little bit more about what different types of performance enhancing drugs there are and what they do. Among the most popular PEDs are
Anabolic steroids which make you stronger
Human growth hormone which makes you bigger
Erythropoietin (EPO) which makes you go longer
Beta-blockers which calm you down
Stimulants which wake you up and diuretics make you lose water and salt
Be under no illusion these PED’s make you run faster, jump higher, more aggressive, recover quicker, concentrate better, become bigger, become stronger and more powerful. They are performance enhancing!
So, we know what peds are and why athletes dope. I wonder what are the consequences of being caught doping?
Once you are caught, either by the testing methods, missing three out of competition tests or are identified by a bona fide whistleblower, you will receive a punishment. Punishments vary and there are not harsher punishments for some drugs than others. You don’t get a bigger ban for steroids than you do for EPO for example.
The evidence must prove that the athlete knowingly took the banned substance. So, the athlete might only get a reprimand if they can prove the banned substance entered their system unknowingly. This might be for example by eating contaminated meat.
There is a 2 year ban if the substance is there and you have no excuse, 4 years if you knowingly took the substance, and longer bans up to a lifetime from the sport if you continue the use PED’s and are caught again after initial bans.
As I mentioned before, you can also receive a ban for missing 3 out of competition tests.
On the face of it appears as if there are enough sanctions, enough to deter the athletes from taking the PEDS. A lifetime ban sounds like there is nothing more they can do in the fight.
So, are the authorities winning the fight against the use of PED’s?
The truthful answer, without too much research and evidence is an empirical NO! Clearly not
I wonder why this is the case?
Well, its quite easy, the money, the corruption, the first time bans, the quite straightforward ways of avoiding detection and therefore the chances of getting caught are quite minimal. Also, back to the elephant in the room. And that is that most athletes cannot win unless they dope!
The word dope derives from the Dutch word ‘doopen’ meaning ‘to dip, mix’.
Whenever I hear commentators using expressions like ‘superhuman performance.” I immediately think it is superhuman and indeed I wonder exactly what they are on?
I remember being in a seminar group whilst studying sport sciences at the University of Teesside in the mid 1990’s. The subject was PEDs and the futility of trying to stop their use. We left the seminar not only with a clear vision of how widespread the issue was but also how frustrating the whole issue is of fairness in sport. Whilst we were all on our soap boxes, we agreed that there was not only fairness in sport but also in life. For the very same reasons sport has unfairness running through it and lack of morals and hypocrisy, life has the same issues. The problems are the same same.
By the way, WADA didn’t exist back then and wasn’t formed until 1999. The PED and social use drug issue was governed prior to them by the International Olympic Committee and individual sporting federations own governing bodies. Some very mainstream sports like baseball didn’t even have drug testing in those days!
Very similar to WADA now, the IOC’s list of banned drugs was there to ensure fairness, health and the spirit of the sport.
On the face of things, these are difficult to argue against and if this was a perfect world, I would agree with them wholeheartedly. The problem is we don’t live in a perfect world. Let’s have a little dig down into their statement of ensuring health, fairness and equality for athletes worldwide.
Let’s start with fairness
As ever I know there are exceptions to all the following criteria. But rest assured all have an influence over the fairness of sport or the complete lack of it. I want to keep this film quite short and so I won’t go into too deep an explanation of each, but I will let you use your own experiences and nod in agreement when considering the following.
The first one and these are all in no particular order is help from friends and family and the state.
Remember please we are discussing fairness in sport. How can it be fair that some fortunate athletes have significant help and others who are less fortunate might receive little or no help in their quest for excellence?
I’m sure somebody in Greenland has watched the Olympics and thought, you know what. I want to be an Olympic champion! I am going down to my local athletics track and day one starts. I have just under 4 years to prepare. Hang on, we don’t even have a track, or a grass football pitch or a velodrome. Oh well, I’d better go back to bed because I have to get up early in the morning and do some seal hunting. Their dream is over. On the flip side, someone born at altitude, close to amazing facilities or in a lovely all year-round climate conducive for training, start their Olympic quest with an amazing day 1 of training.
The climate, very similar to someone’s location.
There is little doubt that climate plays a part in success in sport, why do teams go warm weather training? or complete spring training in warmer conditions that allow for better training? Lucky athletes are born in such perfect climates, rich athletes or their families actually move to areas better conducive to training. I’m sure there have been athletes who never realise their potential because of the extremes of where they live. I live in the middle east and in the summer it is too hot almost to go out, let alone train.
Wow. Where do I start, Nike’s Air Zoom! Aerodynamic, lightweight carbon this and that. I ride mountain bikes and 26ers can’t keep up with the 27.5ers who chase unsuccessfully the 29ers and those 29ers with the latest and most expensive 180mm travel forks are probably going to win in certain types of races. The development of sports equipment is frightening and those that have access to it (and that can afford the expense) will have that unfair advantage over their fellow participants.
I’m just going to pop to my local supermarket in Dubai and buy just about anything I want or need to fuel my success in sport. The shelves are stocked high, the fresh produce counters are spectacular, and I can have any cut of meat I so desire. I can also have it organic if I want it and can afford it. I’ve travelled extensively and seen the other end of the spectrum. Where the shops are bare or prohibitively expensive or governed by the black market. When I finish my sport and I take on a high protein post-race meal to repair muscles and I’m ready to go again in my next training session. Do all my fellow competitors have the same advantage?
Your somatotype or your body shape
We are born with a genetic makeup and then pretty much learn everything from there on. So even from day one, some have an advantage in some sports because of their genes. The unfairness continues through the bodies development and learning phases.
Every person on earth is different. In my mind that is a fact. I’ve known and taught identical twins, who are different! There’s a common belief that we fall into one of 3 body type categories. We are either ectomorph, mesomorph or endomorph. Within each of these categories are a series of definitions that describe the body type and personality traits. A very simple way of saying it is we are either fat (endomorph), thin (ectomorph) or muscular(mesomorph). This is a simplification and through several ways a person can change and evolve their body type shape. There have been many athletes that have changed and become extremely successful in their fields. However, these changes are small and being an endomorph will certainly prevent you from success in the high jump. Ectomorphs might struggle in the contact sports such as rugby and American football. Mesomorphs have no chance in the marathon. The fact that we are born in such a predetermined way makes a mockery of the notion of fairness in sport. It actually makes sport completely unfair!
Continuing on with the body shape we all have a different anatomical and physiological make ups. We might look similar, but the smallest differences make for unfairness in sport. I remember a throw and catch tennis ball game with 2 friends in Switzerland, many years ago. It’s fairly safe to say, as sports teachers we all had fairly good techniques. However, with my T Rex arms, my distance was way less than theirs and believe you me. I tried, I wanted to win. The same advantage or disadvantage is seen throughout all parts of our bodies both inside and out.
Some athletes have access to good role models
Athletes don’t get into sport to become role models, but through their fame and success they do become them, and others follow them. The current crop of Egyptian squash players is almost certainly attributed to positive role models. I had never really heard of squash until I was 18, I love the sport and it was only after watching a top player play against a good friend of mine that I became inspired to play. I know there are potentially great squash players all over the world who have never even heard of the sport or been influenced by its successful role models.
Access to facilities
is similar to location but these facilities I’m talking about are the super specialist ones such as those used by gymnasts, or venues like the National Tennis Centre in London, where I worked for a short time.
Even in the UK, there are places remote enough to prevent athletes’ access to facilities. Other countries and their citizens and residents can only dream what it must be like to have access to these specialist facilities or even have a local gym with weights to train with.
Injury, sporting injuries can happen nearly any time, whilst playing, whilst training or whilst out socializing with the family doing something completely unrelated to the sport. Do all athletes have access to the same levels of medical support? Of course, they don’t.
War and conflicts. At any time in the world there are 40 or so wars going on. There can be little doubt as to the effect of how living in a war-torn country can negatively affect your ability to perform in elite sport. Some countries and their athletes are blissfully unaware of the world’s troubles as they concentrate on their training everyday.
Religion Some religions can make success in sport more difficult, as I said I won’t go too deep into the topic but I guess you know what I mean.
All of these 9 criteria I have just mentioned and I am sure there are plenty more. Affect fairness in sport and can either give you an advantage in some sport or could for the very opposite reasons be a disadvantage to another athlete’s success.
PED’s can minimise this unfairness in sport. Tav Chlordane as a 174cm tall basketball player is waiting for a call that never comes from US colleges offering him a full scholarship. Tav Chlordane as a HGH elevated 2m tall player is on the plane and looking forward to draft day. Equally so, just imagine if my destiny was different and I didn’t dream of NBA glory but the Olympic marathon gold. Being born in Sheffield, England and not in Iten, Kenya. Dubbed the “city of champions,” Iten, a town that sits on the edge of Rift Valley, 7,000 feet above sea level and also because I don’t have the money for regular high altitude training camps, oxygen tents and many other “legal’ aids to improve performance. This means I am destined to watch the race on the TV. Unless……. EPO Hello! Did you know it is cheaper to take EPO or its equivalents for several years than it is to buy a hyperbaric chamber that can be used legally to get the same advantages of increased oxygen flow around the body?
Honestly, I have never known anything quite as unfair as sport, without complicating the discussion or muddying the water it can easily be argued that in actual fact PED’s make sport fairer for all.
Let’s have a look at the 2nd justification for banning PED’s in sport and that is their detrimental effect on your health.
Of course, there are side effects to taking PEDs. Not quite what Newton was talking about in his third law stating that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But there is a consequence, a reaction to everything we do. This includes absolutely everything including those substances we eat, rub on, inhale, drop into our eyes, inject or shove up our backsides.
The resulting effects of the use of PEDS is of course the reason for taking them in the first place, the increased strength, size, concentration levels, quicker recovery etc. but there are also the side effects. The things that we would rather not happen to our bodies. But when you make a deal with the devil you know there are going to be conditions attached. Depending on the type of drug, side effects might include long term impotence, acne, balding, and steroid rage or roid rage. PEDs can also stunt growth in adolescents, more serious effects include heart and liver damage, and an increased risk of blood clots. The list goes on and makes for pretty grim reading. The problem is however that even on USADA’s website there is a lot of guidance that use vague words like could, might and unknown.
The evidence points to a lot of drug use, but those inevitable side effects maybe are insignificant or are not seen immediately and take time to manifest and not all athletes are affected the same way. Certainly, not to the point where it is significantly detrimental to health.
In none of the lists of side effects does it say death and a lot of those side effects are no worse than the general population might experience as a result of their lifestyles and behavior’s.
Also just throw into the discussion sports related health issues such american football concussions, boxing deaths, gymnasts joint problems and Alzheimer’s from footballers heading balls.
You could continue with Swimmer’s shoulders and rugby players necks.
You can insert into this discussion, any sport that an athlete does to the point of obsession and there will be an injury or condition that the athlete has significant chance happening to them.
Let’s be completely honest, sport if played properly is bad for you. Anything in moderation is generally a good thing, most things when done to an excess is detrimental to you. This is not just in sport but across almost all facets of life.
Personally, I have recently had shoulder surgery as a result of rugby dislocations and consequential poor technique in my racket sports. I had a discectomy between C6 and C7 (for those that know their spinal regions) from playing rugby league, I have fractured my humerus from a cycling crash, my ankles and knees hurt so much after sport now, I need painkillers. I used to go to sleep with my socks on after a tough squash match because I knew I wouldn’t be able to bend down to put them on in the morning. Broken noses, muscles strains, joint sprains, knee arthroscopies and quite often now, I have involuntary muscle contractions whilst sitting watching TV. I’m at the point where I rave about the benefits of acupuncture in the treatment of my back pain.
I love sport, but I am not sure sport loves me.
We have the picture drawn for us of PEDS manufactured in back street laboratories with crazy eyed wackos concocting them with eye of newt and wing of bat, but truth is something far different. With pharmaceutical companies making regulated high grade drugs used for bonefide medical purposes. The side effects of these drugs are known and can be managed, also are those side effects any worse than what the sport itself does to us?
The very same drugs that kept an elderly relative of mine alive for the last ten years of her life would get me 2-year ban from competition.
A good friend of mine has recently undergone major heart surgery and was administered quite legally and safely EPO the day before the operation to prepare him for the rigors of surgery.
How many times have you heard that heard the breaking news that such and such has tested positive, its nothing new and certainly not infrequent? How many times have you read that such and such has died as a result of taking those PEDS? I know there has been early heart attacks from some athletes but who is to say these wouldn’t have happened anyway?
There is a even a chain of thought that the use of PEDs in some instances might actually prevent injuries or lessening the chance of an injury with better recovery, strength etc.
Drugs are much more effective today than they were in the days of strychnine, sheep’s testicles, ground down horse’s hooves or the bottle of Cognac half consumed by Tommy Simpson climbing Mont Ventoux. on the last day of his life.
Drugs work, they give you gains much quicker than without their use, they let you recover and they give considerable advantages in concentration, endurance etc.
Human beings are strange animals, look what we do to this planet, extincting species, corruption etc. etc. all this is because of individual and collective selfishness. I’m cynical about many things in this life and humans are the reason why. I know very wealthy people who do their part by recycling their paper and have their maid compost the remains of excessive meals where too much was made in the first place, they even pay to offset their carbon emissions. This is whilst they have 3 children, 4 houses around the world, a fleet of cars and frequent holidays. Oh, and by the way, they then preach to others about how they should do their bit to save the world.
As a species we are all very selfish and those that know me will have heard me say that I wont be too sad when we are all gone from this planet. Much better for the planet and those few remaining animals we haven’t killed.
Unless the likelihood of athletes that dope are going to have their health severely and irreparably affected. Athletes are going to way up the risk reward and the fact that they are even contemplating it up means they may well dope.
Once again anecdotally on a survey on my website I asked the question, win a gold a medal and die at the age of 50, a lot of athletes said they would take a gold medal!
The athletes were then posed with the dilemma, take drugs win a gold and then be subsequently banned, many said yes to this scenario as well. Let’s not forget that they probably wouldn’t have won in the first place were it not for the drug use, so what are they actually losing in reality?
The final justification for the banning of Peds is that it violates the spirit of the sport.
They define this spirit as follows. The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body, and mind, and is characterised 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
Once again just thinking about this list, it is difficult to argue that sport would be better all-around if everyone had the same amount of everything across the world. But I’m afraid to say the very moment any of the categories I have just mentioned enter the world of sport they, in the main they become obsolete. It’s almost as if WADA is saying these things just to be politically correct, I’m sure that deep down they don’t mean them, and it is really just a utopian type of wish list.
The banning of PED’s doesn’t change what I have just mentioned. If PED’s were completely eradicated and no one took any type of drug, do you think sport would be fair? Do you think it would become healthy? Would we get no excellence in sports performance? Would banning PED’s ensure that sport is fun? And would athletes have community and solidarity with one another? Of course not.
Talking of banning, let’s get something straight ‘prohibition’ doesn’t work. We have laws in society with some very harsh penalties including the death penalty and still people risk the punishment by breaking the laws. Alcohol was banned in America during the 1920’s, this led to a change in drinking habits that actually in some scenarios increased consumption!
We have prohibition right now in the fight against drugs use in sport. The very fact that I am writing this means that it isn’t working. Prohibition might lead to a headline decrease in consumption, but it also led to the creation of the black market that we currently have. These markets are unregulated and all the additional worries that come with no regulation follow very closely.
An acquaintance of mine in the 1980’s heavily into body building sent away to the USA for anabolic steroids. He received two bottles of the substance. He had no idea how to administer the drug. At least he hoped it was a drug, he didn’t know whether to drink it, rub it on his skin, maybe up his backside, he had a good idea it had to be injected and so he injected intravenously one bottle in one arm and the other in the other arm. This was a long time ago and I know we now have the Interweb and so information is easy to come by, but I guarantee you right now today athletes are risking health in the self-administration of PED’s.
There is a very good argument that says that the sports authorities should test for the health of athlete, not for drugs.
Of course, I don’t like this argument but there is real logic in it and I will certainly make another film about it.
The primary concern must be the welfare of the athlete. But should the welfare of an athlete who knowingly takes a drug to improve their sporting performance knowing it is against the rules and possibly dangerous to both themselves and others be the authorities concern?
What if the drug does not expose an athlete or their competition to an excessive risk, should we allow it even if it does enhance performance?
Let’s get it right that performance enhancement in sport is what it is ALL about. That’s why athletes and teams train so hard. Performance enhancement is certainly not against the spirit of sport, indeed it is the spirit of sport.
I recently heard a politician in the US talk about their gun laws. It has become such a situation that it is now logical to carry a gun. Even if you don’t agree with it. In the mass shootings, the best and most effective way of managing it is, if a good guy with a gun, takes down the bad guy with the gun.
Are we now in a similar position in sport? Do the good guys need to take PEDS to compete with the bad ones?
Some say that we should have two categories for each sport. Should do we have a ‘clean’ sport and for want a better word a ‘dirty’ one?
A human Olympics and a superhuman Olympics?
Or would this just start a new cycle of athletes taking PEDS in the clean games! Oh dear.
So, we started this by understanding the reasons WADA ban the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport.
We have poo pooed the idea that they give an unfair advantage to those taking them. Quite possible they might make sport fairer!
The idea that banning PED’s will ensure the health of athletes, has been thrown out because of the fact that maybe the PED’s are not quite as bad as authorities might have us believe and in actual fact there are opinions that say taking some PED’s to increase strength and reduce recovery time might even be more healthy for you. I think we can all agree that sport is actually quite unhealthy for you.
And finally, the violation of the spirit of the sport. This is the least plausible rational for me. As I said I think it is just some political correctness to please (probably), the organisations that fund them.
Mankind has long lived in a society that has encouraged success, rewarding the successful with untold riches and fame. Our society has never been so unbalanced, as Bono said, the have yachts and have nots. Mankind as a whole is incredibly selfish and corrupt.
Drugs whether prescribed by a doctor for medical treatments, taken socially, taken as non-prescribed pain relief, possibly as an alternative to alcohol as a way of feeling good, taken by athletes to aid their attempts at success in sport or taken by popstars to help them write and play the music we love.
Drugs are part of the world right now. Like it or lump it, they are not going away. Sport has never been as fast, powerful or competitive. Wouldn’t sport be better and more entertaining if everyone could take drugs?