Drugs—“The AIDS of Sport”
“Steroids constitute a growing threat to our national health and safety.”—U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official
MILLIONS of spectators watching the Seoul Olympics were shocked. Their hero, the athlete who ran the world’s fastest 100-meter race, was stripped of his gold medal, disqualified for the use of prohibited substances.
Thus another plague has infected sports—doping, so difficult to root out that it has been termed “the AIDS of sport.”
“The Medicine Olympics”
It seems that it was mainly after the second world war that some athletes began using drugs in sports. Now, though, according to experts, the use of drugs among athletes is so widespread that it necessitates “complicated and costly organizations, often founded by the sports federations themselves, with the clear aim of obtaining prestigious results, attracting sponsors, making money, gaining power.” The phenomenon is so widespread that Corriere Medico, an Italian medical periodical, called the 1984 Los Angeles games “the Medicine Olympics.”
In fact, the use of drugs and other illegal therapies to gain, unfairly, the competitive edge plagues many sports in all countries. Each country wants to surpass the others, so no one wants to stop giving drugs to athletes. In a timely way, the European Parliament pointed out that “the ambitious expectations and frequent sporting events keep an athlete under such pressure as to increase the temptation to make use of more or less legal means of maintaining good physical and psychological form. The temptation is also made greater by the fact that sports trainers have few scruples.” Doping is even practiced on young boys.
Various Forms of Doping
Various forms of doping exist. For example:
Steroids, the drugs involved in what has been defined as “the most serious event in Olympic history,” the disqualification at Seoul of the 100-meter record holder, Ben Johnson. These are substances that, by influencing the production of amino acids, contribute to the increase of muscle mass and strength as well as to an increase in aggressiveness. It is said, for example, that all the world weight-lifting records set in the last ten years can be attributed to the use of these substances.
Stimulants, such as caffeine and strychnine, used to increase alertness and delay fatigue.
Narcotic analgesics, to kill pain and to induce calmness.
Beta blockers, substances that, by slowing the heartbeat and steadying the body, are used particularly by archers and marksmen.
Diuretics, for rapid weight loss and for masking the presence of other prohibited substances at the time tests are made.
These are just some of the well-known substances used in doping, but the International Olympic Committee has drawn up a list of about a hundred prohibited drugs. The problem is that as soon as one of them is banned or methods are developed to detect its presence, whole teams of doctors and chemists set to work to produce others.
However, there are still other ways in which athletes try to improve their performance dishonestly. In order to better their position in the water, some swimmers have had their intestines filled with helium gas.
Many athletes have admitted receiving blood transfusions to improve their endurance. According to some, by means of a transfusion of their own red blood cells, drawn from them some time previously, the flow of oxygen to all parts of the body, muscles included, is improved.
Press sources have recently revealed that some women athletes have used pregnancies as a form of doping. Pregnant women experience an increase in blood volume, and this in turn increases the conveyance of oxygen to the muscles. Some women athletes, especially those taking part in sports where great physical strength is required, have taken advantage of the initial stages of pregnancy in order to improve their performance. After the games, they have an abortion.
A Serious Problem
But how widespread is the problem? Judging by the rare occurrences in which athletes are disqualified for the use of drugs, some fans might think that only a small percentage of athletes resort to doping, and certainly their idols would never do anything of the sort. But those who are acquainted with the sports world see things differently.
“The use of anabolics is much more widespread than is commonly thought,” said a former discus thrower from Italy. And according to Professor Silvio Garattini, an expert in pharmacology, the problem of doping is probably much more serious than has been thought. According to some sources, 50 percent of the more physically endowed athletes make use of prohibited substances.
The Risk to Athletes
But the problem of doping does not lie simply in that better performance can be obtained by unfair means. Today’s athlete, and especially the one who takes drugs, is part of a much larger, though hidden, team, which includes doctors able to prescribe forbidden substances if necessary. However, it is the athlete who pays the consequences—the shame of being found out or disqualified and, more important, the serious health risks.
It is believed that anabolic steroids cause damage to the liver and to the cardiovascular system as well as produce various other secondary physical effects. These drugs are also held responsible for damage to the urogenital system, and for the violent personality of some athletes.
The abuse of other drugs, such as stimulants, provokes a “state of confusion, toxic dependence, visual hallucinations.” As for blood transfusions, the scientific periodical Doctor points out that the infusion of an athlete’s own red blood cells is not without risks. One of these is the “overloading and the reduction of the blood flow in certain areas caused by the increase of the viscosity of the blood” and the accumulation of iron “with negative consequences for the parenchyma (liver, kidneys, heart, endocrine glands, etc.).”
The victims of doping, at least those who are known, are numerous. A few of the more well-known cases are Danish cyclist Jensen, who died during the 1960 Rome Olympics; British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died during the 1967 Tour de France; the Dutch middle-distance runner Augustinus Jaspers, who died right after a race at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984; the West German Birgit Dressel, a heptathlete who died, was poisoned by the drugs prescribed to her for years by a sports doctor.
“Sport has no pity,” said Carl Lewis, several times an Olympic champion. “Doping has already claimed its victims. The organizers know about it and say nothing.”
And yet, even though aware of these disturbing facts, how do athletes answer the question: “If I could give you a pill that would make you an Olympic champion but that would kill you within a year, would you take it?” Of U.S. athletes interviewed, 50 percent said yes. And this same answer would probably be given by many athletes in other parts of the world.
Can it be expected that antidrug measures will succeed in combating this plague? Well, according to the experts, very few centers are equipped to do the proper testing, and the tests themselves are very expensive. Also, test results have often been falsified. Furthermore, in spite of what was achieved at the recent Korean Olympics, new doping methods are always one step ahead of the means of detecting them. Yet, there is good reason to hope that doping and violence in sports will end.
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“If I could give you a pill that would make you an Olympic champion but that would kill you within a year,would you take it?” Of U.S. athletes interviewed, 50 percent said yes
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In the Soviet Union, 290 athletes and trainers were penalized for drug use between 1986 and 1988.—Leninskoye Znamya, a Soviet magazine
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“Athletes on steroids become mean and aggressive.”—Dr. Robert Voy, chief medical officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee