No pure and simple answers as a worrying number of athletes test positive

For every athlete who blames their supplements, there may be another who takes the drug willingly

Sun, Aug 31, 2014, 06:00

The plan was to quit after season four and go completely cold turkey. There are worse addictions in life than watching television, but when you’re staying up half the night mainlining several episodes of Breaking Bad through your brother’s Netflix account it’s probably time for a breather.

Then it turned out season five had just done it again at the Emmys – cooking up a near-perfect batch of six awards on Monday night. That triggered a near-lethal overdose: the last 16 episodes, including the series finale, over three very long nights this week, and no prizes for guessing what helped keep me awake. Every euphoric second of which was completely worth it.

None of this will surprise the millions of people already in recovery from a similar addiction. Breaking Bad is now the most watched show in television history, according to that big book of records – and for good reason. The uncomfortable play on morality, deftly crafted by creator Vince Gilligan, and the constant juxtaposition of protagonist and antagonist shifts our own loyalty between what’s right and wrong more easily than we dare to contemplate.

Hopeless

That includes the production, selling and consumption of those glistening blue shards of methamphetamine hydrochloride, or crystal meth, which we all know is one of the worst addictions in life. Breaking Bad doesn’t necessarily glamorise or demonise methamphetamine, but merely presents the drug by its effects.

And despite what Walter White or Jesse Pinkman might claim, crystal meth, by the very nature of its manufacture, is anything but pure: some contamination is inevitable, and with that the risk of some immediately unpleasant side effects, including death.

Now any chemistry student will tell you that methamphetamine is not to be confused with methylhexaneamine – although they sound similar, and they’re both classified as popular stimulants. In fact the structure of methylhexaneamine is not unlike amphetamine, the parent compound of methamphetamine, and they were both originally developed for medicinal purposes. That should be where the comparison ends.

And yet while no athlete in their right mind would dare play around with methamphetamine, plenty of them, it seems, are willing to play around with methylhexaneamine, despite the risk of some unpleasant side effects, including death.

That may be in extremely rare cases, but there continues to be a worrying number of athletes testing positive for methylhexaneamine. The most recent case is Amantle Montsho from Botswana, the 2011 World Champion over 400 metres, who finished fourth at last month’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Montsho is now facing a two-year ban after both her A and B samples from Glasgow contained methylhexaneamine. She’s not actually contesting the findings, either, claiming that she must have accidentally consumed the substance. Montsho, in other words, is blaming one of her dietary supplements or energy drinks – and chances are that is to blame. One of those supplements has been identified as Anabolic Nitro Extreme Energy Surge, which even if it doesn’t do or contain exactly what it says on the tin, has, in the past, shown up traces of methylhexaneamine.

Willingly

Here’s where things get sketchy – because for every athlete who blames their supplements, there may be another athlete who has willingly consumed it. Which is why, in 2010, methylhexaneamine was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) list of prohibited substances – initially as a non-specified stimulant, then, in 2011, as a specified stimulant. Wada don’t make these calls without a background check. Methylhexaneamine was originally designed as a nasal decongestant, but taken off the market in 1983. In 2006, it was reintroduced as a dietary supplement by Patrick Arnold, chief chemist at Balco, and the man who introduced the designer steroid THG to the sporting market.

By 2010, methylhexaneamine was showing up in so many doping samples that Wada simply had to act. There were at least 30 high-profile cases that year, including South African rugby players Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bjorn Basson, who both tested positive after beating Ireland, 23-21, in the Autumn International at the Aviva Stadium.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the entire South African team had consumed a dietary supplement, during their pre-match warm-up and at half-time, identified as the same Anabolic Nitro Extreme Energy Surge that Montsho is now blaming. Yet Ralepelle and Basson got off without even a warning, and instead the blame was laid at the South African Rugby Union, who “should have tested the supplement more thoroughly”.

Ralepelle and Basson mightn’t get off as lightly now. Although it’s banned in-competition only, methylhexaneamine carries the same strict liability as any other illegal substance. According to the latest IAAF list of doping sanctions, eight athletes are currently serving two-year bans for methylhexaneamine. There were three methylhexaneamine positives at the Winter Olympics in Sochi earlier this year, and it’s almost at the stage now where more doping violations are being blamed on supplements than old-fashioned steroids.

There are even more worrying issues with methylhexaneamine, including the fact it was linked to the death of Claire Squires, who collapsed near the finish of the 2012 London Marathon, the subsequent inquest stating that methylhexaneamine consumption was “probably an important factor” in her death.

No wonder the use of the drug in any form is now restricted in several counties but there is no guarantee that supplements will ever be entirely pure. And while there are worse addictions in life, try telling any athlete to go cold turkey, or even take a breather.

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