Just what do athletes take to improve their performance?
Every so often, a case crops up in the news about a sportsperson who has been caught out and punished for taking performance-enhancing drugs. People hear about it and tut and shake their heads but often, they don’t actually know just what it is that the person has taken. Performance enhancing drugs can sound obscure and foreign to our ears when the most regularly abused drugs we’ve heard of are tobacco, alcohol, caffeine or illegal substances. So just what are these athletes taking?
The most famous case of EPO, and arguably of drug doping in recent years, has to be the Lance Armstrong case. A borderline hero-worshipped cyclist who suddenly was stripped of his Tour de France titles after multiple accusations of doping brought against him were finally confirmed. It was a story of deceit and unfairness on a massive scale. But just what was the wonder drug? This substance that he supposedly used that made him so impressive on a bike? The answer to that, dear reader, is EPO.
EPO tends to be the name given to synthetic forms of erythropoietin. That’s a word that looks stupendously complex but makes you sound clever if you drop it into conversation. If you were wondering, it’s pronounced air-ee-throw-po-eetin. You’re welcome. Erythropoietin is found in your body. It is secreted by the kidneys in response to inadequate oxygen supply to parts of the body. It stimulates the production of red blood cells, which can then transport more oxygen round the body and save the compromised body part. Imagine a supermarket where many of the tills are unmanned. Erythropoietin is like the manager who buzzes the staff intercom and calls extra staff to the tills.
But why exactly do sportspeople like Lance Armstrong feel the need to compromise their career over this? Well, here’s the deal: cyclists and similar sports are made for endurance. You’ve got to be able to continue for a long time. The exact comparison of a marathon not a sprint. In a short event your muscles can recover quite quickly afterwards, but in a longer sport your muscles need to keep going for much longer. I’m sure anyone who has ever run a marathon or done a charity cycle will attest that towards the end their muscles begin to ache like mad. That’s because the body is struggling to get oxygen to them at a quick enough rate as they’ve not stopped to rest. Therefore, by taking erythropoietin, these athletes are able to increase the amount of blood cells they have in their body, and so increase the amount of oxygen that can get round to their muscles. Clever, eh?
And, the nifty part which made EPO all the more attractive to athletes before the Lance Armstrong scandal is that because the body naturally makes erythropoietin, it doesn’t tend to show up in drugs tests. Excellent if you’re looking to get away with cheating! The only drawback is that certain synthetic forms of EPO (basically ones which are not pure like the samples in your body, but have been artificially made) can show up on drugs tests as they have a slightly different composition to natural erythropoietin. You know what they say, the cheaper equivalent is never as good as the real thing…
However, if you’re running a marathon and are thinking of taking EPO: a) don’t, it’s illegal in sport and b) don’t, it can lead to strokes and heart attacks – deaths have been associated with it. Also, scientific studies into the benefits of it haven’t been conclusive, there’s no proof that one shot of EPO can turn you into a super athlete compared to someone who just honestly trains hard.
These are controversial in the sporting world. Anabolic steroids are made by the body, and include testosterone, or synthetic versions of it. Nowadays many health magazines and news outlets boast of the wonders of testosterone when working out to improve muscle mass, and supplements can be bought in many shops. Athletes have been known to take them because of these features. The increased muscle mass is seen as an advantage. One of the biggest cases of anabolic steroid use was in the 1988 Seoul summer Olympics, when many sprinters were found to have taken anabolic steroids.
One of the reasons that these drugs are so controversial is that scientific studies have not proven that these supplements do indeed provide significant boosts to muscular strength. However, studies have shown that overuse of these drugs can lead to a potential higher risk of heart attack.
Anabolic steroids are used medically, notable in hormone replacement therapies. In prescribed doses, the desired effects can be balanced against the potential risks, but the use of them in sport is most definitely not deemed as medically beneficial, hence why any athletes found using them are stripped of any titles they may have.
Depending on the steroid taken and the sex of the individual, side effects of these can include deepening of the voice, shrinking of the testicles, enlargement of breasts and gradual baldness. This is all centred around the natural effects these hormones would have in the body.
Another reason that testosterone and anabolic steroids are controversial is due to the regulation of their levels. Earlier on this year the media was filled with the debate surrounding athletes who have hyperandrogenism: a condition where the body has abnormally high levels of testosterone without someone having taken any drugs. This has been especially rife in the area of female competition where some say that competitors have an unfair ‘biological advantage’ over their competition. The regulatory bodies are coming under increasing pressure to create a sporting scene which is fair for everyone to be able to compete, but it is incredibly difficult. This is why some are debating bringing in testosterone ‘thresholds’ – indeed this would actively encourage certain athletes to take drugs in order to compete so that they could reduce their natural testosterone levels. Science has now led us to a world where “don’t take drugs” is not simple enough when it comes to making the competition as fair as possible.
Human Growth Hormone
Another performance enhancing drug based on a substance found naturally in the body is human growth hormone, or HGH. In humans it is used for cell regeneration and reproduction. The hormone has received press more recently when it was revealed that some rugby players had taken, or were considering taking it. In theory, people claim that it can be used for growth of muscles, thereby increasing strength and endurance (which is fairly useful for a rugby player, for example). However, no scientific studies have conclusively proven that it does indeed significantly boost muscle mass and resulting physical performance, as some claim. In fact, studies have shown that there are many risks with injecting yourself with this substance, like diabetes and heart problems.
So there you have it. Three performance enhancing drugs which have received fairly popular press. I hope that it’s been fairly interesting reading, and that now you appreciate just how sneaky some sports people are when it comes to getting their hands on the prize. It just pays to remember that even though doping methods are getting subtler, the methods of testing for these substances are also advancing. Doping isn’t worth the risks, both to your career and to your health.
This blog was loosely inspired by a short conversation I had on twitter, so please don’t hesitate to talk to me on there.