We all know that athletes get tested for banned substances and that sometimes some are caught and punished for trying to cheat their way to victory.
But what exactly is going on in the world of sport? What measures can science take to detect the cheats and is it inevitable that drugs will remain in sport?
During the London Olympic Games, the first 5 finishers, plus 2 randomly selected athletes, in every event were drugs tested immediately after they finished competing. There was also random, unnanounced testing in the Olympic Village and anywhere that the athletes were staying.
Usually there are 2 types of tests that an athlete undergoes. The first is a urine test and the second is a blood test. An athlete’s urine sample is divided into two bottles under strictly governed procedures. The athlete is also asked to complete a medical declaration detailing all forms of prescribed medicines, over-the-counter remedies, vitamins & supplements etc. If a banned substance turns up in one of the samples, that athlete had better have a ‘Therapeutic Use Exemption’ to explain their usage.
Urine samples are tested using gas chromatography (separating methods are used to divide the contents of the sample) and mass spectrometry (showing the exact molecular specification of the compounds).
Blood Tests are used in order to detect drugs such as EPO (Erythropoietin) and artificial oxygen carriers. EPO is actually a naturally occurring hormone secreted by the kidneys. It stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. Endurance athletes have been found to use EPO to increase their haemoglobin levels. However, the side-effects of taking too much EPO can be fatal – thickening of blood, seizures, headache, nausea, fever to name just a few.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) takes the issue of drugs in sport very seriously. It is constantly on the look-out for new artificial ways of enhancing an athletes performance and then devising a test to detect it.
Since a test for detecting EPO was created, many athletes are returning to a system of blood-doping called Homologous Doping. HD is a process where about 2 pints of blood is taken from an athlete a couple of weeks before a major competition and then frozen. The frozen blood is then defrosted and injected back into the athlete a day or two before the competition, increasing the number of red blood cells & therefore increasing the athlete’s oxygen carrying capacity.
Whilst there are serious health implications with blood doping, (Heart attack, cerebral embolism, infection) it seems the rewards of winning are more tempting.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) set up a Medical Commission in 1967 to investigate & prevent athletes from using performance enhancing substances. It wasn’t until 1975 though that a test for anabolic steroids was developed. Caffeine and Testosterone were outlawed around 1986 and blood-doping and EPO were banned in 1990.
An extensive list of prohibited substances can be found at the WADA website and include the following categories:
- Non-approved substances
- Anabolic agents
- Peptide hormones, growth factors and related substances
- Beta-2 agonists
- Hormone and metabolic modulators
- Diuretics and other masking agents
The rewards of sporting achievements and the very competitive nature of some athletes means that it’s unlikely that drugs can ever be eradicated from sports completely. As soon as a new doping test is developed it seems a new performance enhancer is developed to avoid detection.
What are your thoughts about drugs in sport? Do you have any experiences of being pressured to win at any cost?