The Conundrum of Drugs in Sport

Over the last year, we have been treated to headlines such as ‘Russian doping claims: 99% of athletes guilty’. This was an investigation by a German TV documentary that claimed that Russian officials systematically accepted payment from athletes to supply banned substances and cover up tests.

A former Russian discus thrower claimed that the majority of athletes selected to represent Russia used banned substances.

WADA said that the claims would be “carefully scrutinised”, adding that it had “already received some information and evidence of the type exposed in the documentary”.
It added it had passed the information on to be investigated by “the appropriate independent body” within the IAAF. The WADA statement concluded: “If action is warranted, Wada will take any necessary and appropriate steps under the code.”

Several links are suggested for further reading at the end of this article.

‘Doping’ and ‘banned substances’ are commonly referred to in the media. More accurately we are talking about drugs and specifically ergogenic aids. Ergogenic aids are any outside influences that assist athletic performance. These include certain performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), mechanical aids, physiological aids, sports supplements, and psychological aids
The reasons for performers using PEDs are similar to the ones given for any deviant behaviour.

Time for a question; Suggest four possible reasons why some elite performers are prepared to take illegal performance enhancing drugs. (Answers are at the end of this article).

Using a PED does not guarantee success. Elite performers still need exceptional physiological and psychological qualities and to train incredibly hard to develop them – no drug can replace that. But, PEDs do enhance performance, and can make the difference between a gold medal and coming fourth.

WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) is the main international body responsible for promoting, coordinating, and monitoring the fight against the use of drugs in sport. It has produced an anti-doping ‘code’ that lists those substances that are banned and also requires athletes to select one hour per day, seven days a week to be available for no-notice drugs tests; this is known as the ‘whereabouts’ system and is supported by the IAAF, UK Sport and many other sports organisations.

In the UK, the testing programme is managed by the National Anti-Doping Organisation (NADO). NADO determines which sports are required to provide ‘whereabouts’ information. The appropriate NGB then decides which athletes are on the system.

Missing drugs tests and/or failing to provide sufficient information to NADO will count as a strike – three strikes in 18-months period means an anti-doping rule violation has been committed, leading to a one to two year suspension.

Every sport, country and national and international governing body is trying to find, punish and prevent the use of PEDs by performers and coaches.

To do this they:
a. Provide procedures and suitable laboratories to test for drugs

b. Punish those who have been shown to have used banned substances

c. Try to educate young performers against the use of drugs

d. Make performers aware of the consequences to their careers and their health of taking PEDs.

e. Make sure performers know what is and is not allowed.

Time for another question – Describe some of the measures which are in place to solve the problem of the use of performance enhancing drugs by some elite performers. (Answer at end)

However, as the article described at the beginning of this blog suggests, many performers use PEDs despite attempts to stop their use.

Some people have concerns over the lack of really heavy punishments and more basically, whether the taking of drugs is really so different to using other sophisticated training aids.

Elite performers, when asked the question ‘should PEDs be banned’, invariably reply ‘yes’. But some coaches, performers and those with an interest in sport will argue that drugs should not be banned.

Consider the following:

1. Testing for drugs, the testing regime, the need to sometimes defend a decision in the courts, is expensive and time consuming. The money could be better spent.

2. Detecting drugs is not always effective, tests are not always done properly and some countries and sports are not as effective as others. There is a lottery on whether a performer will be caught or not

3. The drug testers are always behind the chemists, trying to catch up with new tests for new drugs. Those athletes with resources and access to the most up to date drugs will be able to use them undetected for a while.

4. The distinction between what is a drug and what is an acceptable nutritional supplement can be difficult to define. This is not logical to many.

5. The sacrifices that a performer makes to achieve success are a personal decision – why should the taking of PEDs and their long term health risks be any different?

6. If the use of PEDs leads to improved performances, and new records, this makes sport more exciting. This will mean more spectators, TV viewers and ultimately sponsors, bringing more money into the sport and increasing the number of professional performers

7. PEDs are not available to all performers because of their cost. Therefore drugs are like other divisive factors such as socio-economic group, education, and location, that means that there is not equality. Do drugs not fit into the category of another method for improving performance such as better training facilities, equipment and coaching.

Question – Suggest reasons to support the argument for legalising drugs in sport today.

Some performers might not want to ban the use of PEDs , but consider the other side of the argument:

1. While training or playing injuries are common in sport, they are not a permanent and necessary side-effect of taking part. The permanently damaging, unhealthy effects of using drugs are known and inevitable and should not be allowed.

2. If the use of PEDs is legalised then realistically performers could not succeed without their use. This would pressurise all performers to take them. Morally this cannot be permitted.

3. There is a cost involved in developing and producing PEDs. It cannot therefore produce the level playing field that sport is supposed to be – it would not be available to all.

4. Sport is about the using/developing natural talents and the use of PEDs is outside that concept. The use of drugs is not the same as using a training aid. Training aids develop the existing physiological or psychological abilities within the performer. PEDs give the performer something that was not already there and therefore artificially boosts performance.

Therefore the use of PEDs is seen to be unethical, going against the very nature of what sport is about and is clearly cheating. A number of countries have even made the use and possession of many PEDs illegal.

Question – Discuss the reasons some people think that PEDs should never be permitted in sport.

Drug use in sport is not going to go away. People will cheat in order to improve performance; spectators will question the validity of performances; sports do want to provide the highest levels of performance; there is no effective solution to the problem.

Take time to read about the conundrum of drugs is sport.

Reasons why some elite performers are prepared to take illegal performance enhancing drugs:

Improve performance is too vague as ‘performance’ is part of the question

1. Improve physiology – build muscle / increase energy / increase O2 transport
2. Train harder / to mask tiredness / injury / recover more quickly
3. To win / earn big money / win at all costs / keep sponsorship / fame
4. Because of pressure to win from coaches / media
5. Thought that everybody else does it
6. To increase aggression / arousal
7. To decrease stress / impact on nervous control / enhance reactions
8. Don’t see it is wrong / worth the risk.

Measures to solve problem of the use of performance enhancing drugs

1. ‘Whereabouts’ system
2. Out of competition-time testing
3. Life time bans / name and shame
4. Increased money put into research / testing / technology
5. Making performers aware through education programmes / moral and health issues / advertising / use of role models
6. Unified policies / programmes to deal with the problem
7. Stricter laws / criminal offence

Reasons to support the argument for legalising drugs in sport today.

1. Drugs can be masked / occur naturally in body / found in common medication
2. Drugs easily available / impossible to illuminate use of drugs
3. Overall low rate of testing / inaccurate results / cheats one step ahead of testers
4. (negative impact of poor testing) affects performer’s reputation / careers / sponsorship deals / equiv.
5. If regulated, drugs are not so harmful / could produce safe performance enhancers
6. If everyone could take them it would become a level playing field
7. Money used on testing could be better spent
8. Drugs are necessary to recover from the excessive training needed
9. Other technological benefits aren’t regulated against e.g. biomechanics / nutrition / oxygen tents / equiv.
10. Different sports / countries have different rules
11. Individuals have the right to choose / it’s their body
12. Spectators or supporters wouldn’t be disappointed by role models

Reasons PEDs should never be permitted in sport.

1. It is cheating / unfair
2. It does not allow for fair competition / unequal
3. It should be about natural talent / becomes artificial
4. There are numerous health risks
5. Competition becomes who has the best drugs
6. Performance becomes limited by cost involved
7. Drug-taking should never be a role model


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