Olympics and Performance-Enhancing Drugs: A HealthCentral Explainer

ALTudor Editor
  • Every Olympics has its share of controversies, and the 2012 London games are proving to be no exception. 


    Two have cropped up already, with allegations of too-harsh scoring in the women’s gymnastic competition that may have cost American Jordyn Wieber her chance to win an individual medal in these games. The other that has been rumbling centers on 16-year-old Chinese swimming marvel Ye Shiwen, whose world-record performance in her events – including her swimming a distance faster than male American swimmer Ryan Lochte – has raised suspicions among some that she might owe her unprecedented performance at least in part to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

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    It’s important to note, however, that Ye Shiwen has been tested for PEDs and has been found clean by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for these Olympics, and host country Great Britain’s Olympic Association Chairman Colin Moynihan has said in a recent interview that he considers the matter closed.


    The use of PEDs (or “doping”) has long been a problem in the modern Olympic games.  But though many people may be aware of the scandals, they may be less familiar with the drugs themselves and what they may do to give athletes the unfair advantage that has led to them being banned.



    Banned Substances and Their Purported Effects


    Most athletes ingest some type of performance-enhancing regimen as part of their training routine.  These could include strict diets; sport or protein supplements; daily doses of vitamins; or the use of health supplements such as glucosamine, creatine, or glutamine.  Most of these natural supplements are completely legal in most national and international competitions.


    However, some types of supplements and medications are banned.  Below is a list of the most common of these banned substances:


    -       SteroidsAnabolic-androgenic steroids are perhaps the most familiar of the banned substances, with controversies over their use spanning not just the Olympics, but Major League Baseball and other sports organizations as well.  These steroids are synthetic versions of the male hormone testosterone, and they are legally prescribed to people whose health conditions – such as cancer and AIDS – decrease their normal amount of testosterone. When used as a PED, they can quickly increase an athlete’s muscle mass, giving them an advantage over other athletes who have gained muscle in the natural way.


    Other steroids that are banned in competition include so-called “designer” steroids such as DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), androstenedione (Andro) and tetrahydrogestrinone (THG).


    -       Amphetamines:  Amphetamines include such drugs as Adderall, Dexedrine, and Benzedrine.  These medications artificially boost the central nervous system and increase an athlete’s concentration, alertness, and self-confidence.  They also decrease appetite and give users a sense that they have more energy than they actually do.  These drugs are highly addictive and are banned in almost all competition.


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    -       HemAssist and HBOCs:  A HemAssist is a drug in a class known as a hemoglobin-based oxygen carrier (HBOC).  They were first designed to act as blood substitutes to help the blood carry more oxygen in people who had suffered severe blood loss due to trauma. Only one of these drugs – diaspirin cross-linked hemoglobin (DCLHb) – has actually existed as a drug, though it was removed from the market in 2008 due to safety concerns.  All other HBOCs never made it to market after clinical trials on them were halted in the late 1990s (For a complete look at the clinical trial history of HBOCs, this article gives a very good overview.)  The advantage of a HBOC is that it allows the blood to carry more oxygen for a brief period of time, thus boosting the athlete’s performance for the duration of his or her competition.


    -       Erythropoietin (EPO):   Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone that is naturally produced in the kidneys.  It works to stimulate the production of red blood cells.  When this substance is injected or ingested by an athlete, the body believes it is “low” on red blood cells and triggers the production of more of these cells in the bone marrow. The more red blood cells a person has, the more oxygen he or she is able to carry in the blood, and the better his or her athletic performance.  The name for the synthetic form of EPO is Epogen, a drug that is used to treat anemia from such conditions as diabetes and kidney disease.


    -       Ephedrine:  Ephedrine acts much like an amphetamine on the body, though its action is much more like an “adrenaline rush,” experts say. It boosts the athlete’s heart rate and blood pressure, allegedly boosting his or her performance.  There is little research to support this effect, but athletes continue to use it, although has been banned in competition.


    -       Caffeine:  Caffeine – as those of us who can’t function without our morning cup of coffee know – acts as a stimulant, boosting energy and performance.  Doping organizations don’t ban the use of caffeine outright, but athletes who test positive for using excessive amounts of caffeine are considered to be using the substance as a PED.



    These are just some of the known PEDs that WADA and other regulating bodies test for in athletes in competition, but there are many others, some without accurate testing procedures in place to detect them.  For a complete list of substances that have been banned from use in the Olympics and other professional sports, visit the WADA website.


    Doping is a problem in sports, yes, but it pales in comparison to the amazing achievements athletes who test negative for these substances – including swimmer Ye Shiwan – can do with talent and years of dedication and training. 


    Have a happy and healthy Olympic games from all of us here at HealthCentral!



    Sources:  World Anti-Doping Agency; Duke University Pharmacology; LiveStrong.com; Bicycling.com; The Science of Sports; Wikipedia; Sports Medicine at About.com


Published On: July 31, 2012