With the seemingly endless stream of sporting events that explode onto our screens, from the Olympics, to the Commonwealth Games, to World Championships, we investigate the hidden world of doping and performance enhancing drugs in sports and how it might change everything you ever knew about your favorite sportsmen.


The history of performance enhancing drugs in sports

Since the first spear was flung people have been searching for ways to gain an advantage in all forms of athleticism. Though the search for this elusive competitive edge lends itself to provocative headlines, the practise of doping is anything but innovative. Ancient Greek Olympians competed for huge chunks of cheddar, which motivated success and led to the initial flickers of cheating becoming an athletic norm.

In the lead up to the first Olympic games these sportsmen gorged themselves on red meat and animal testicles, probably to load up on primal creatine sources, while experimenting with herbal concoctions and hallucinogens to enhance their chances of winning the winner’s olive wreathe.

Even Roman Gladiators ingested stimulants such as strychnine (a poison) to fight fatigue and enhance the ferocity of their fights, but who can blame them if you consider it was their jugular on the line with every bout.


performance enhancing drugs in sports


But is drug free sport possible in the modern day?

Fast-forward to the late 19th century and French cyclists were reported to drink a potent mix of wine and coca leaves to beat fatigue and hunger during prolonged periods of competition. Then came modern Olympic era where athletes used mixtures of heroin, cocaine and caffeine to get an extra edge which led to The International Association of Athletics Federation banning performance enhancing substances in all professional sports.

Most recently the Russian athletics foundation accepted its’ ban from international competition following substantial doping allegations that spread across nearly all it’s athletes, marring their participation in the Rio Olympics with uncertainty. With so much national pride, individual glory and cold hard coin on the line it’s certain this sporting algorithm for success is here to stay.

We investigate why athletes are motivated to put their body on the line, how it might affect their health and why these drugs might be nothing but a placebo.


The mindset of an enhanced athlete

Whether you’re a weekend warrior or pro athlete, winning is a priority too easily made possible with the help of the pharmacology’s dark art. Sadly, the decision to use is often thanks to pressure applied at a grass roots level.

The burden of perfection from parents can actually make young male athletes feel positive about doping, found research at the University of Kent. “With the rise of so-called ‘tiger’ parenting – where strict and demanding parents push their children to high levels of achievement – this study reveals the price young athletes may choose to pay to meet their parents’ expectations and dreams,” explains Daniel Madigan a Ph.D. student in the university’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences.

The seeds are often sown at an early age creating a cerebral root structure for adult athletes who are seduced by the lure of doping. Though performance-enhancing drugs are perceived as physical improvers, there is often a bigger psychological aspect to them. Lance Armstrong reiterated this, “My ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw. That desire, that attitude, that arrogance.”

Though he’s the poster boy for cheats, he’s not alone in his ambitions. A study in PLoS ONE on roughly 3,000 hobby triathletes found 13.7% of them used banned performance-enhancing drugs and of those people, they were more likely to also take substances that boosted mental functions. “The results correlated with earlier findings of doping in leisure and popular sports and brain doping in society as a whole,” explains Mainz University Professor of Sports Medicine Dr. Perikles Simon.

“The findings also illustrated for the first time that physical doping and brain doping often go together, at least for recreational triathletes.” It’s clear the mind is the true flex behind these muscle enhancers, but it might not be a smart decision because even the big name performance drugs don’t stand up to thorough scientific scrutiny and might nothing more than glorified placebos.


Do performance enhancing drugs even work?

Anabolic steroids are seen as the big Kahuna of performance but there is doubt forming on whether or not they actually make such a notable difference on records. A paper in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise gathered all sporting records (including Olympic and world records) of male and female athletes across 26 sports, between 1886 and 2012, and drew comparisons between the pre-1932 records when steroids first became available and post.

They found that the times, distances and other results did not improve as expected in the doping era. “The average best life records for ‘doped’ top athletes did not differ significantly from those considered not to have doped. Even assuming that not all cases of doping were discovered during this time, the practice of doping did not improve sporting results as commonly believed,” explains Dr Aaron Herman, the lead author of the paper.

“This research demonstrates that doping practices are not improving results and in fact, may be harming them – seemingly indicating that ‘natural’ human abilities would outperform the potentially doping ‘enhanced’ athletes – and that in some sports, doping may be highly prevalent. The success rate of doping tests may be as little as 4% and some anti-doping initiatives to date have been very ineffective.”


performance enhancing drugs in sports


PED’s in strength, explosive power, and muscle sports

Though, Dr Hermans findings are in direct conflict with other evidence such as Hartgens et al study in the Sports Medicine journal which analyzed all of the data up to 2004. They found that strength increases of between 5-20% and lean muscle gains of 2-5kg existed in athletes who took steroids.

There’s also the now infamous study by Bhasin et al from 1996 which effectively destroyed the previous belief that performance enhancing drugs or steroids didn’t make much difference to an athletes performance. The study grouped participants four different ways:

  1. No exercise, placebo
  2. No exercise, 600 mg Testosterone Enanthate weekly
  3. Resistance exercise 3 times/week, placebo
  4. Resistance exercise 3 times/week, 600 mg Testosterone Enanthate weekly

There was barely any difference in bodyweight in the first group, as expected, but the real shock came in the second and third groups. Again, it was no surprise to find that group 4 who took testosterone in supraphysiological amounts and trained, gained the most amount of weight.

The second group though, gained more muscle simply sitting on their asses than the third group who trained, but without the use of steroids.

If there was any doubt that a sportsman, especially one involved in heavy strength or muscle-based sports, would benefit from steroids, then this study proved beyond a doubt that they do indeed help you progress at a faster rate with much-enhanced recovery capacity.


What about performance-enhancing drugs in endurance sports?

What about endurance aficionado’s, namely cyclists, who have a well-publicised affair with the substance erythropoietin (EPO)? Well, like steroids, this hormone actually occurs naturally, being produced by the cells in your kidneys to regulate the production of red blood cells in your bone marrow.

These red blood cells carry more oxygen in your blood so the EPO increases your oxygen absorption, reducing fatigue and increasing endurance. Research in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found no scientific evidence that it actually does enhance performance but did discover plenty of markers that suggest it caused serious harm. EPO thickens a person’s blood, increasing the risk of blood clots, which can block the flow to an organ such as your heart or brain.

“I believe there is a clear need for high-quality research to investigate the effects of supposedly enhancing drugs in sport,” explains lead researcher professor Adam Cohen. “If, as is expected, many substances in current use are found to be ineffective it will help keep our athletes safe and improve confidence in sporting results.” That’s two very clear examples that two of the more notorious substances associated with doping are in fact utter duds.


performance enhancing drugs in sports


The power of placebo vs PED’s?

So why do athletes keep risking their reputations? The slightest edge, be it physiological or psychological, puts winners over the line, which is why placebos prove so effective. Research in The Gunderson Lutheran Medical Journal told runners they were being given super oxygenated water, but in truth were given plain ole H20, they ran 8% faster. So if drugs aren’t doing what they say on the tin and are negatively affecting athlete’s health, then a way smarter option would be for coaches to give their athletes a placebo and tell them it’s a high tech illegal athletic booster.

Research in The Gunderson Lutheran Medical Journal told runners they were being given super oxygenated water, but in truth were given plain ole H20, they ran 8% faster. So if drugs aren’t doing what they say on the tin and are negatively affecting athlete’s health, then a way smarter option would be for coaches to give their athletes a placebo and tell them it’s a high tech illegal athletic booster.

Yes, it’s trickery but it’s safer, legal and might just be the only scientifically proven way to break world records. Alternatively, buddying up with a training partner who is a practical joker with supplements might be the best thing you can do to make gains.

Though, going back to the Bhasin study, I think we can quite safely say that the gains made from drugs are undoubtedly more than a simple jedi mind-trick. That probably makes the prospect of risking their reputation a lot more enticing for an athlete.


How many athletes are using performance enhancing drugs in sport?

There’s no telling how many sporting champions harbor this dirty little secret but the question about how they got away with it answers how they’ll continue to do the same in the future. “I had to use my whizzer, which was a fake penis where you put in someone’s clean urine to pass your drug test,” said Mike Tyson about his old school point and shoot method of becoming the champ.

Needless to say, the practice has advanced since then, which has left the anti-doping agencies scrambling to keep up, especially if you consider some athlete’s genetics are proving to be a factor.

A study in Biology of Sport gave 55 men injectable steroids, but as many as 17 of the men tested completely negative for this drug even though they were able to use it build muscle. They simply lacked the gene used to convert the testosterone into a form that dissolves in urine, which means they could get on the juice with complete impunity.

The scientists learned from previous research that roughly two-thirds of Asian men are missing both copies of this gene, as are nearly 10 percent of Caucasians.

If this is you and you’re a pro athlete, you effectively have a license to cheat. To get around this the World Anti-Doping Agency prefer to use the passport method where they record an athlete’s screening tests and detect anything that vary from the person’s baseline values, but this still doesn’t include gene testing so won’t pick on those people who lack this gene.

To really pick up the cheater the relevant authorities would need to have genetically personalized testing where DNA is drawn from an athlete, a practice which is currently frowned upon.


The future of drug tests in sports and how sports athletes avoid detection today

However, a recommendation in the British Medical Journal found blood and urine samples taken from athletes to spot the sings of doping should be stored for up to 10 years to let detection technology used to catch cheats, catch up with substances that evade discovery.

A long term approach is unquestionably the gold standard because an athlete could use a performance enhancer for years, then cycle off it for the appropriate amount of time before a competition and still be tested clean – a common practice used by some of the world’s most famous sprinters.

Some injectable steroids only stay in your system for 12-18 months while orally take steroids can be in your body for less than a week. So if you’re an athlete looking to bulk up for a contact sport you could take a year off, get on the illicit gear to beef up, wait until you’re clean then return to the pitch as clean as a whistle.


performance enhancing drugs in sports


If you’re an endurance athlete taking EPO you’ve got an even bigger window for improvement as this substance needs to be taken days before a competition for it to be detected, providing it actually does work which is still disputed.

As soon as a new way to secure an advantage gets into athlete’s hands their support team is looking for ways to mask it with even more drugs. After all, Lance Armstrong never failed a drug test, he just got tired of fighting the charges, which the public saw as a confession. And so the cycle continues because the war on doping has failed and will likely to keep doing so.


Can athletes accidentally take performance enhancing drugs or steroids?

You could be doping without even knowing it, even if you don’t take supplements at all. A study in Drug Testing and Analysis found the illegal use of clenbuterol in livestock farming could impact the results of doping tests in sports. Clenbuterol is a weight loss and muscle boosting aid that increases a metabolism, which is used in farming to improve the volume of lean meat on an animal.

The researchers found soccer players who had eaten red meat tested positive for this banned substance. Fortunately, clenbuterol is banned throughout the European Union farming practices but unscrupulous farmers from other countries could put athletes at risk of testing positive for this substance. When you start taking supplements your risks do become a little higher. A study at the University of Loughborough found traces of banned substances in some dietary supplements can leave athletes vulnerable to failed drugs tests.

When you start taking supplements your risks do become a little higher. A study at the University of Loughborough found traces of banned substances in some dietary supplements can leave athletes vulnerable to failed drugs tests.

“It is now well established that many dietary supplements contain compounds that can cause an athlete to fail a doping test,” explains Ron Maughan who chairs the Sports Nutrition Group of the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission. “In some cases the presence of these compounds is not declared on the product label. For some prohibited substances, the amount that will trigger a positive test is vanishingly small and may not be detected by routine analysis of the supplement.”

Yes, the FDA has put in place stringent guidelines for supplement manufacturers to adhere to but this is not without the odd blip. In 2014 roughly two-thirds of FDA recalled dietary supplements still had banned drugs at least 6 months after being recalled, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The FDA is there to protect consumers but nothing is a failsafe so duty of care rests on you and your coaching team to find out if your supplements are putting you at risk of failing the test. You don’t want to be the next Maria Sharapova.

Fortunately, it is highly unlikely because reputable supplement brands don’t want to be tarnished with this offence and supplements do have to go through stringent safety tests. If you’re not a competitive athlete then you’ve got nothing to worry about and can keep supplementing as per usual.

Unfortunately, athletes have cottoned on to the fact that this happens, albeit very rarely, and use it to their advantage by proclaiming innocence through ignorance. You’ll regularly hear, “It must have been in a legal supplement that I was taking – I would never knowingly take steroids!”, which really hangs a cloud over who is innocent and who is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.


What does the future hold for drugs in sports? A drug-fuelled Olympics?

It may sound like the plot of a Stephen King book, but a drug-fuelled-games might well be the future of sport. After all, the war on all drugs was recently declared a failure by the United Nations and they’re now exploring alternative ways to address this growing problem.

If governments with a wealth of resources can’t control recreational drugs, it serves to reason sports regulation bodies, with their limited budgets, will have a much tougher time in the future.


performance enhancing drugs in sports


Sports fans expectations and resulting TV ratings might lead the charge for a shift in attitude because they expect to see a world record thumped at every Olympics. Even though we’re advancing in all areas of nutrition and sports science, the best athletes continue to improve at increasingly slower rates. Researchers found it might be impossible for a human to run 100m faster than 9.48 seconds, so where do we go from there?

Researchers found it might be impossible for a human to run 100m faster than 9.48 seconds, so where do we go from there?

Do runners get given handicaps for their height or will we start measuring to the one thousands of a second, even though it looks to the naked eye as though everyone crosses the finish line at the same time? What it boils down to is the genetics and relative amount of hard work each athlete has put in.

Just remember an athlete who takes an elicit drug cannot get to the top ten of their sport by taking steroids and kicking it on the couch, they still need to train extremely hard to make the most of their performance enhancing drugs.

We may have to ask ourselves what the new norm is because while there are athletes out there willing to do anything to get a slight competitive advantage. This is a sad reality for performance enhancing drugs in sports that we might have to brace ourselves for if they want to keep the fans and moneymen tuning in.


Steroids and performance enhancing drugs statistics



Of retired NFL players show signs of a traumatic brain injury.
Source: American Academy of Neurology

Steroids in the UK

1 million
People may use steroids daily in Britain
Source: Sky News

Remember the drugs

The amount by which steroid users were more forgetful when recalling past memories.
Source: Northumbria University

Lasting effects

Even dabbling in performance enhancing drugs in your youth can have a life long effect on your muscles. A study in The Journal of Physiology found a brief exposure to anabolic steroids would have possibly permanent effects on your sports performance.

The researchers suggest there could be a cellular recall at play in a juicer’s muscles and although they say more trials are necessary to make this a certainty it could mean just one spike delivers a lifetime of muscle memory.


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