The Use Of Doping And Performance Enhancing Drugs Among Athletes

With sports, it’s always about the battle of the best. There is quite a lot at stake for professional athletes; the winner wins big, and the losers remain on the sidelines. These are among the reasons why professional athletes, or athletes in general, turn to performance enhancing drugs to boost their chances of winning. Muscle cells are those that take raw materials, oxygen, and glucose, and turn them into energy. With training, the ability of the body to deliver oxygen to the cells is improved, increasing average muscle size. Better athletic performance comes with more efficiency and power in completing these processes. Moreover, increasing the number of red blood cells in the body increases the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to its cells and tissues, where blood doping and performance-enhancing drugs are used. 'Doping” refers to an athlete’s use of prohibited drugs and methods to improve performance. Steroids are among the drugs used in doping, but there are also many other kinds such as, stimulants, hormones, diuretics, narcotics, and marijuana, alongside prohibited methods such as blood transfusion or gene doping. Studies have found that as many as 1 in 20 teenagers reportedly use steroids to increase muscle mass. Additionally, according to the Health Research Funding Organization, in 2010, 1.75% of all doping samples from sports players around the world came back with adverse findings. Since the 2004 Olympics, the number of adverse findings has almost doubled in the athletes that were tested.

Arguably the most widely talked about athlete to take performance enhancing drugs is Lance Armstrong, a former professional road racing cyclist infamous for the biggest doping scandal in cycling history. He began as a triathlete in the early '80s, and began winning various cycling competitions starting 1993 with CoreStates United States Professional Championship, and Tour de France, Tour DuPont in 1995 and 1996. After recovering from testicular cancer and various brain surgeries in 1996, he was able to maintain his athletic performance, winning again in 1998 at the Tour of Luxembourg, seven straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005, and a Bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. He was first accused of doping in 2005, and was officially charged in 2012. Armstrong won the hearts of many as a cancer survivor. Many chose to believe his feats as inspirational, and never would have thought that his wins were actually doctored. Among common performance enhancers is creatine, a supplement for a naturally occurring compound in the body. Anabolic steroids, a synthetic version of the hormone testosterone, are also quite common. According to data, more than half of those tested positive for enhancers, 50.6%, were positive for anabolics. Steroid precursors, among others, are substances that the body converts into anabolic steroids. Last, among the most common are erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone produced by the kidneys. Lance Armstrong used a cocktail of drugs such as testosterone, cortisone, human growth hormones, and blood booster EPO. EPO is a hormone produced by the kidneys, but can be artificially produced and injected under the skin to stimulate red blood cells, to delay fatigue, and to increase endurance, usually used by long-distance runners.

Tests in Australia have shown improvements in an athlete’s performance from 4 weeks worth of use compared to performance improvements that would’ve taken several years. Although the EPO drug is a hormone that is naturally produced in the body, injecting this thickens the blood, and could stop the heart from beating when the body is inactive or slowed down. Likelihood of suffering blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes increase upon usage. From data published by German researchers, Franke & Berendonk, authors of Clinical Chemistry in 1997, a ‘mediocre’ shot of steroids on an athlete drove improvement by 17% in one season. This athlete went on to become a world record holder. EPO greatly improves performance during cycling according to laboratory trials in a 2007 article published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. 16 cyclists were studied for 13 weeks, split into groups with placebo injections and doses of EPO. Pre-tests showed V02 max tests averaging 3.90L/minute, which is the maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during periods of intense exercise. Results after using EPO showed time to exhaustion improved by 54% from 22 minutes to 33.5 minutes, and a peak power output growth of 13% from 330W to 374 W in the first 4 weeks of trial. Although this study showed improvements in performance, the results may come out different should an elite player be tested. An elite player with peak power output of 500W, with a bump of power output to 565W, would only show a 13% increase.

EPO is by far not the most widely used drug among so many more, and numerous others currently being developed. 50% of professional athletes have influenced their friends’ decisions to use anabolic steroids. Steroid users often end up taking 10 to 100 times more than the prescribed amount by a physician, and many of the drugs used as enhancers are addictive, which can cause withdrawal symptoms. Even if these enhancers improve performance, is it worth it at the expense of a professional career, reputation, or even a life?

14 May 2021
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