Why drugs feature in elite sports
Participation in top-level sport generates pressure on athletes to suspend certain moral principles in the pursuit of athletic achievement, writes WILLIAM REVILLE
PUBLIC INTEREST in elite-level sports is very high. There is a widespread belief that sport is good for people; for example, it is commonly believed that sport builds moral character. But, just as for most activities, the value of sport depends on many circumstances.
Sport in general offers many advantages, but elite-level sport presents many dangers.
Amateur participation in athletics, swimming or field team sports is obviously beneficial. Physical exercise is good for body and mind, team games call for co-operation, honest endeavour, courage, grace in victory and acceptance in defeat. However, the higher the level of the sport, the greater the dangers posed. Participation in elite-level sport generates pressure on athletes to suspend certain moral principles in pursuit of athletic achievement. Also, the intensity of elite training programs and the hunt for fame and fortune risk producing self-absorbed egoists.
There is considerable evidence to support these latter contentions, for example, the “death for glory” Goldman Dilemma. Steroid expert Dr Bob Goldman asked elite athletes in 1982 whether they would take a drug that guaranteed an Olympic gold medal but would kill them within five years. More than half the athletes said yes. Goldman repeated the survey biannually until 1995 with the same result.
This desire to win at all costs is peculiar to elite athletes. A Goldman-like survey of non-athletes was published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (February 2009). Only two out of 250 people surveyed said they would take a drug that would ensure both success and early death.
Artificial aids to performance have always featured in the Olympic Games. Even in ancient times, some athletes believed that eating lizards cooked in a certain manner boosted athletic performance, and Thomas Hicks, winner of the Olympic marathon in 1904, was administered strychnine and brandy by his coach in an attempt to keep him going.
However, scientifically-designed performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) have become the scourge of modern elite sports. The modern PED era began about 50 years ago in the Soviet Union, which was eager to win medals to advertise the value of Marxist ideology. The practice was taken up enthusiastically by Eastern bloc countries. Western countries soon followed suit and PEDs are now widespread.
There is a a long list of banned PEDs. Probably the three most popular are the hormones erythropoietin (EPO), anabolic steroids, and human-growth hormone (hGH). EPO stimulates red-blood-cell production. Red blood cells carry oxygen from blood to muscle where it boosts the burning of food fuel for energy. EPO boosts performance in endurance events, eg cycling and long-distance running. Some athletes take anabolic steroids to build muscle mass quickly, and to reduce injury during intense workouts, and hGH is taken for similar reasons.
These “big three” PEDs have serious side-effects. EPO thickens the blood, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. EPO was implicated in the deaths of at least 18 cyclists in the 1990s. Anabolic steroid side-effects include rage, depression, liver abnormalities, tumours, and heart and circulatory impairment. Side effects of hGH include cardiomyopathy, Type 2 diabetes, and joint and muscle deterioration.
Victor Conte founded the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (Balco) in San Francisco. It designed PEDs and masking agents to prevent detection in athletic drug tests. Balco fell apart in 2003 in the worst doping scandal in history. Conte spent four months in prison. Runner Marion Jones, who was associated with Balco, surrendered the record five medals she won in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney after she admitted taking steroids. Conte now campaigns against drug-use in sport. He, and some other experts, claim that the majority of top athletes still use smart, new PEDs.
If Conte is right about the widespread use of PEDs, another dilemma confronts the elite athlete. If most of your competitors are using PEDs, you have a choice – either use PEDs and give yourself a chance, or don’t and risk losing badly. You could easily persuade yourself that, since so many others are taking PEDs, it is not unfair for you to do so also, as you are purely “levelling the playing field” (relative morality).
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC