Doping in sport (1)

The case of the Belarusian shot put competitor Nadezhda Ostapchuk at the London games has again brought into focus the issue of performance enhancing drugs in modern sport. Ostapchuk won the Olympic final, decisively beating the Kiwi Valerie Adams, only to be disqualified a week later when her urine tested positive for steroids. She was then stripped of the gold medal and further sanctions are likely to follow. In this essay I will present my opinion on the wider issue of performance enhancement in pursuit of excellence in sport.

Steroids have such a bad press that it is easy to forget they were invented for medical use. They promote muscle growth which helps patients with degenerative diseases, recovering from cancer treatment etc. Steroids were so effective in their therapeutic application that sportsmen started using them in the strength-building phase of their training cycle. There is little benefit in using steroids in the last few weeks before a competition, when the athletes typically work on speed and agility rather than strength. This is when another class of therapeutic drugs can be taken to boost the athletic performance. It is known as EPO and was first invented to treat anemia, help with healing wounds etc. It elevates the red cell count in blood and enables a more efficient transport of oxygen to the muscles, which is critical in the running and cross-country skiing events.

The performance enhancing drugs used immediately before the competitions include stimulants and beta-blockers. The leading stimulant, amphetamine, has medical applications in the treatment of depression and other mental conditions. It was also widely used by soldiers during WW2 and truck drivers in 1950s and 1960s, to help them stay awake for prolonged periods of time. Stimulants are useful in the sport events where short reaction time and alertness give competitive advantage – like table tennis or baseball. Beta-blockers on the other hand are sedatives which slow the heart rate and help with concentration. Originally invented to treat anxiety and racing heart they can be illegally used to enhance the performance by archers, shooters and pool divers.

It should be clear from the above recap that the performance enhancing drugs are not some Frankenstein concoctions brewed in clandestine labs of Nigeria but rather completely legitimate therapeutic drugs with a wide range of medical uses. When used on people we consider ill these drugs improve their quality of life and help them recover, which we all agree is caring and noble. But when taken by healthy athletes to make their bodies function even better their use becomes illegal. The difference is not in the drugs themselves but in the context of their use.

Doping in sport (2)

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