The win may be the biggest pressure for players in professional sports. It is not enough to train for hours, days and weeks, a marriage of the mental and physical, pushing athletes to the brink. To finish first, conquer your opponent, and to stand highest on the podium with a gold medal slung around your neck ― that’s the holy grail.
Recently, I wrote about how fame, money and access creates a unique concoction for sports stars to experience extreme levels of alcoholism, substance abuse and mental health disorders. The root of this, I discovered in my research, was that with each new level of success, athletes felt pressure to stay in the game at any cost. Often those costs were addiction to opioids such as pain pills and other narcotics. There is another side to this story ― one that cuts to the quick of an athlete’s drive to be the best in sport. The pressure to be the best may loom so large that cheating becomes a way of beating the odds; or at least one’s opponent.
Doping is the flip side of the addiction token for athletes. With it comes dangers in and out of the spotlight as numerous athletes have faced excommunication from their beloved sport while high on a banned substance. Doping also poses serious health risks for the professional athlete already pushing their body to the supreme limits of physical performance. Though doping in sports is not new for athletes, in 2010, Health Research Fund reports 1.75 percent of doping tests from all sports around the world came back with adverse findings (e.g., confirmed traces of illegal or banned substances). And since the 2004 Olympics, the number of confirmed adverse findings has nearly doubled across all athletes tested for doping.
The Ancient Greeks were first to dope in sports. According to a CNN video about the history of doping, original Olympians consumed a concoction of crushed sesame seeds to gain an edge over the opponent or enhance their performance. In the 19th century, coffee (caffeine), cocaine and alcohol were the most common substances used for performance enhancement.
Today, technological advances in science and medicine have created a wave of new substances and methods for the modern athlete to exploit. The most common forms are anabolic steroids, stimulants, narcotic analgesics (e.g., pain killers and opioids), and erythropoietin or EPO, a hormone produced by the kidneys for red blood cell formation. Athletes have also been known to use diuretics (water pills), which kicks the users’ kidneys into overdrive, flooding the body with sodium and removing water from blood vessels. This process in effect masks the presence of other doping substances in the blood.
Blood doping has also become a popular way of enhancing performance, made infamous by Tour de France alum Lance Armstrong. Most commonly performed through blood transfusions, the user removes blood from the body, stores it, and injects the freshly oxygenated blood back into their body before an endurance-related sport. This method is the most difficult to detect because there isn’t a simple test for high oxygenated blood levels.
Though athletes have doped for centuries, the issue first came to light during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. A Danish cyclist collapsed and fractured his skull, which killed him. The autopsy report showed traces of amphetamines in his system. Since then, doping scandals have become systematic, large-scale operations whereby players, coaches, sports federations and even friends and family are involved in administering and concealing drugs for athletes.
Perhaps the most notorious doping scandal occurred under the East Germany regime, a former Eastern Bloc country ruled by a totalitarian government. In Faust’s Gold, Steven Ungerleider writes how trials in Berlin courtrooms discovered a system of doctors, sports officials and coaches administering steroids and other doping agents to a collective 10,000 German athletes through the 1970s and ‘80s.
Before the Berlin Wall fell and the scheme came to light, doping served its purpose for “East German athletes [who] were considered an exalted class, ambassadors in track suits who would legitimize Communist ideology through athletic superiority,” writes Jere Longman for the New York Times. The doping scheme was so successful East Germany even surpassed the United States in gold medal count at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The same year the International Olympic Committee banned steroids.
Ungerleider interviewed many of the athletes involved in the scheme, known as State Planning Theme 14.25. Some were complicit, others clueless. A common theme emerged: “glory!” This was underscored by Rica Reinisch, an Olympic swimmer interviewed in the book, who said, “Some of my older teammates said: ‘Why complain, if the pills make you train harder and swim faster? Don’t you want to win?’”
Doping can cause severe negative effects to the body. In a study of German athletes given anabolic steroids, 25 percent of participants developed some form of cancer. And the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth in female athletes who took steroids was 32 times that of the regular population. Of the athletes involved in the East Germany doping scheme, some died (which may be linked to steroid use) and others suffer from cancer, liver dysfunction, and ovarian cysts in women. Additionally, negative effects have been passed onto the athletes’ children ― some were born blind or with club feet.
“Roid rage,” the term given to the condition of heightened aggression, irritability and depression brought on by anabolic steroids inadvertently messing with normal hormone levels in the body, have been reported in wrestlers (amongst other athletes) who dope. A story in the New York Times a few years ago told of Chris Benoit, a professional wrestler with the ring name the “Canadian Crippler,” who killed his wife and son before taking his own life. Investigators found prescription steroids at the scene of the crime.
The troubles associated with doping go beyond professional athletes. Research shows 20 percent of high school-aged students surveyed said their decision to use anabolic steroids was influenced by professional athletes and 50 percent said their friends who use anabolics were influenced by them. For example, ABC News tells the story of Rob Garibaldi, a teen growing up in Northern California who dreamed of becoming the next Barry Bonds, the MLB Hall of Famer accused of using performance enhancing drugs to break records.
Garibaldi started using steroids and began to experience mood swings, irritability and depression. This led him to drop out of school at USC and seek treatment for his erratic behavior related to the steroid use. The boy’s mother, interviewed for the story in ABC News, recalls confronting her son about using: “Rob said, ‘I don’t care what the results of the steroids have done to me, this is something I need to do, this is something ballplayers do and I will continue to do this as long as it makes me powerful enough to play in the Major Leagues.’” Tragically, days after this exchange the aspiring baseball player, in an impaired state, stole a gun from a shooting range and killed himself.
Stories like these underscore the importance professional athletes serve as role models to youth and how their behaviors may indirectly influence the actions of burgeoning young men and women. In addition to athletes, coaches and administrators, sports federations and leagues must also commit to ethical standards for their athletes. They must work in conjunction with the World Anti-Doping Agency and International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) to bar athletes and organizations from sports who violate the rules of the game. Moreover, they must engage in educational public health campaigns, open debate concerning these issues, and support the wellbeing of the athlete.
As an example of upholding these standards, The New York Times reports that Joseph de Pencier, chief executive of the Institute of National Anti-Doping Organizations, called on the I.O.C. in 2016 to exclude Russia from future Olympic games until its doping program is exposed and its players brought to justice. Despite the Russian sports ministry denying the claims of doping, de Pencier believes this sends a message that the world community has no place for cheating and should be “demonstrably free of the will to subvert the fundamental values and spirit of sport.”
Additionally, if you are worried about a loved using performance enhancement drugs for sports-related activities, visit the United States Anti-Doping Agency. The website has excellent resources and information as well as up to date policies related to this issue.