the why of performance enhancing drugs

Monday, December 12, 2016

Every week seems to bring another player suspension by the NFL for the use of performance enhancing drugs. The frequency numbs us to the issue and unfairly, we may even suspect players who are clean and free of abuse. For that reason, the depth and breadth of the Russian doping allegations, should make us stand up and wonder what’s wrong with the state of sport. The report from the World Anti-Doping Agency provided evidence of more than a thousand international athletes who benefitted from illegal drugs or tainted testing processes as part of a governmentally run and approved program to have athletes cheat to reach the podium.

Depending upon the sport and the goal, there are a couple basic goals for doping. Anabolic steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) may allow the athlete to train harder recover more quickly, leading to muscle cell hypertrophy and increased strength. Blood doping, either by using erythropoietin (EPO) or by blood transfusion, allows increased oxygen deliver to the body prolonging the ability for muscles to work aerobically.

There is a cat and mouse chemistry battle between the athlete who dopes and the regulatory agencies that try to keep sports clean. The BALCO controversy revealed that anabolic steroid use can be successfully masked from testing but the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic testers were able to uncover the use of darbypoietin, a long acting EPO that had just been released on the market. Presumably, the athlete’s chemist may have a little time advantage initially, but the monitoring agencies catch up quickly. The question though, is why would an individual athlete want to cheat? It’s all about work ethic and philosophy.

Consider this one way of grouping athletes:

  • Group one has innate talent and work hard to maximize their potential
  • Group two does not have elite talent but does work hard to maximize potential
  • Group three has innate talent but lacks the motivation to work
  • Group four has neither talent nor motivation.

Group one athletes will generally succeed but should injury occur, fear of not returning to pre-injury levels might allow a pharmaceutical option to be a tempting proposition. Group three athletes might consider using drugs to substitute for work in the weight room to improve their performance the field.

The use of performance enhancing drugs might allow an athlete to leapfrog from one group to another. The rewards can be impressive and may mean the difference between playing varsity in high school as a showcase for getting a college scholarship. It may allow the college athlete to make a pro roster or an athlete to move from the B team to the Olympic squad. For a country to develop a system wide approach to performance enhancing drug abuse, it seems to make competition on the playing field a proxy for conflict on the battlefield. Based on the WADA report, the Russians were determined to assault the Olympic podium.

Interestingly, there are ways to artificially enhance performance that are quite legal. What is acceptable and what is cheating usually has to do with safety. Imagine a baseball player who can improve his vision by LASIK surgery to 20/15 and can then see the ball that much better than with glasses. Fans would cheer his dedication to his sport to undergo surgery to improve performance.

It gets complicated though. That same thinking to get LASIK surgery would be acceptable for an archer or a trap shooter.  If those two athletes would use a beta blocker, a common medication that blocks the effects of adrenaline in the body, slowing the heart rate and perhaps steadying a shaky hand, it would be considered doping. However, if that athlete had high blood pressure (hypertension) and was prescribed the beta blocker, a medical waiver might be issued.

It’s all about trust. Each competitor trains hard and hopes that their best is better than their opponent and as long as the playing field is level, may the better player win. It’s nice in theory but only works when everybody plays fair. One might argue that we should allow athletes to compete better by chemistry. The “only” downside are the complications of that chemistry, including but not limited to issues like cancer, stroke and death.

The next column talks about blood doping. Stay tuned.

 

 

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