Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Let's Get High - Drugs in Sport

In the wake of sprinter Tyson Gay's suspension by Adidas for failing a drugs test, columnist John Glynn debates whether drugs can ever be erased from sport??? Take it away John...
Gay suspended today by Adidas for testing positive for a banned substance

Sports are something that each person, regardless of age, sex, or nationality, can get pleasure from. Whether it's a child playing in his first soccer game or a professional athlete cycling in the Tour De France, undoubtedly, sports can connect almost everyone.  Devoted supporters and overall dedication to athletic competition has catapulted professional athletes into superstardom. FA Cup final day is a real occasion for some families, and it is for reasons such as this that sport is one of the biggest money-makers in today’s economy.

Since the days of the Romans, sport has held a high place in society, with so much pride and honour involved. However, sport has become a cutthroat, result driven business, no longer innocent and clean. Performance-enhancing drugs have managed to wriggle their way into every sport imaginable, from baseball to rugby.  Methodically and meticulously formulated, these drugs come in substances and chemical agents, often used in medical measures which supply the user with that extra edge when competing. The use of steroids in baseball has been one of the hottest topics in sports for the last few years. Mark my words, in the next decade or so the number of home runs and prodigious, herculean like statistics will certainly diminish. Why?

Well, in a genuine attempt to return “equilibrium” back to baseball, the MLB will begin testing each player for amphetamines. A leading professor from the New York School of Medicine was asked for his opinion on the use of drugs in the world of sport. Dr. Gary Adler stated, “Amphetamines belong to a class of drugs that cause the release of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine.” It is important to realize that dopamine is a major stimulant for the central nervous system, often providing an athlete with that extra edge needed to outwit an opponent. Amphetamines are controlled substances, commonly referred to as uppers; the drug can stimulate feelings of supremacy, potency, self-assertion and enhanced inspiration. David Wells, the renowned pitcher, said: “Cheap and easy to find, these little buggers will open your eyes, sharpen your focus and get your blood moving on demand.”

Ritalin and Dexedrine are two of the favoured brands used by athletes, especially in the USA.  If you are familiar with both of these brands it is probably because they used by people outside the world of sport. An individual with Attention Deficit Disorder may be prescribed Ritalin to encourage their mental alertness. One of the most controversial athletes ever to grace the world of baseball was Barry Bonds. Largely regarded as one of professional baseball’s all-time greats, Bonds was embroiled in a doping controversy that ended up tainting every record he ever achieved. Almost a decade ago, the San Francisco Chronicle alleged that Bonds had used human growth hormone (also known as HGH), insulin and a drug for female infertility that can be used to conceal steroid use. Bonds vehemently denied the accusations, although he later admitted that he may have been given performance-enhancing drugs without his understanding. The name’s Bond, Shamed Bond. Apologies, I just could not resist.                                                                                    

One of the biggest issues that overshadowed baseball in the 1980's and 1990's was the lack of drug testing. This, rather predictably, led to an increase in doping. Honestly, I feel that the strict testing policy being introduced by the MLB will work, but it has taken the organization far too long to execute this decision. Take the NFL, for example, if a player tests positive for a banned substance three times, he is suspended for four games. If the same player tests positive again, he is banned for a full year. This NFL policy has been in place for quite some time, and its effectiveness cannot be disputed.                  

Ramirez highlights lack of tests according to John

Another way to ensure a cleaner sporting world is to up the frequency of testing. In his excellent, prizewinning book (The Secret Race), Tyler Hamilton admitted that many cyclists were given adequate notice before their next test; this gave them enough time to ingest, inject, and do whatever they had to do to clean out their system or mask the presence of drug use. After testing positive for taking performance enhancing drugs, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez said he had been tested 15 times over the past five seasons. I am no mathematician, but this averages out at three tests a season, this is simply not enough. The testing must be random, if an athlete knows when the test will take place; they can easily ensure that their system is clean at the time of calling.

With such fine lines existing, athletes must be entirely clear on what substances are banned. Take the NCAA, for example, their website has an easily accessible list of substances that are forbidden, how they are tested/detected and why they are debarred. This way no “uncertainty” exists, players are clear on what they can and cannot put in their bodies. In addition, this is also a positive method of educate players, both amateur and professional, on the dangers of substance use and abuse.

Lean mass builders are favoured by athletes to increase the muscle growth and lean body mass; these “gems” also reduce recovery time after an injury, and are often used to reduce body fat. Reportedly, some boxers opt for these mass builders shortly before a prize fight weigh in. Examples of lean mass builders include anabolic steroids, beta-2 antagonists, and various human hormones (human growth hormone, HGH).  In Tyler Hamilton’s aforementioned book, the once brilliant cyclist speaks of the blatant abuse of HGH within his cycling fraternity, with Lance Armstrong leading the pack.

Stimulants are used by athletes to raise alertness, increase mental awareness, increase assertiveness, reduce fatigue and shorten result times. Commonly used by athletes in order to disguise the pain of an injury, painkiller abuse has become commonplace in sports. By taking these, an athlete can continue to participate and achieve beyond that of their regular pain threshold.                                              

I have also read about how relaxants are now used in sports such as archery where a steady hand is essential. Athletes feeling excessive anxiety or discomfort which is hard to overcome often opt for relaxants. Alcohol, beta-blockers and marijuana are the most common forms of relaxants used.

Diuretics often used in horse racing

A rather vivid picture is painted when I mention this word, diuretics. They are often used in sports such as wrestling and horse racing where a certain weight restriction needs to be met. Diuretics remove water from an individual’s body. The Tour De France is renowned for two reasons, it is the toughest endurance race in the world and it is also an event renowned for drug abuse.  I do accept that organisers are doing all in their power to clean up the tarnished image of cycling; however, one method of performance enhancement favoured by athletes in the past was blood doping.  Perhaps it is still occurs on a smaller scale, I can merely speculate. This type of doping involves removing red blood cells from the blood and replacing those weeks later. Why? This helps in boosting the overall number of red blood cells in the body, increasing the amount of oxygen that the body can therefore carry. Apart from cycling, it is extremely beneficial and popular in long distance running.

Testing has become far more technical and scientific. Today, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry are the most common forms of examination. Both methods can be used on blood and urine samples. Gas chromatography involves the sample being vaporised in a gas solvent and placed in a machine. The sample then dissolves each one of the substances differently within a precise time. The substance is then extracted from the gas and is immersed into a solid or a liquid which can therefore be examined. On the other hand, mass spectrometry is even more scientific! Like something out of Dr.Evil's lair, the sample is blown apart by an electron beam and each segment is accelerated along a magnetic tube to a detector for analysis.

This testing lark is Dr.Evil style

Besides harsher punishments, the only real way to solve a problem like this is through education. Thankfully, so many high school sports programs now have experts come in to talk to them about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs. Over the past decade, the negatives associated with performance enhancing drugs in pro sports have made it obvious that players need to be educated early. From depression to sudden death, some of these drugs pose a massive threat to the world of sport.
What do you think; can drugs ever really be erased from sport?

John Glynn [Columnist] 


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019