Illegal Doping Drugs in Sports

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Doping drugs, also known as performance-enhancing drugs, are prohibited substances designed to improve performance. These substances can be dangerous and lead to negative health consequences for athletes. They can also result in being banned from competition.

What Are Doping Drugs?

Doping drugs are substances that are designed to enhance performance but are banned from use in sports. They may be prohibited from use because they are potentially harmful to the athlete, they degrade the integrity of sport, or both.

Anti-doping programs have been created to protect athlete health and to maintain the integrity of sports competition. These programs aim to keep everyone on a level playing field so one athlete doesn't have an unfair advantage over another.

Sports doping, drugs in sport, illegal steroids, blood doping, and banned supplements are all terms that refer to the illegal use of pharmaceutical and chemical substances prohibited in sports.

Why Athletes Use Doping Drugs

Elite-level athletes—including Olympic weightlifters, bodybuilders, sprinters, marathoners, and even archers and shooters, to name just a few—sometimes use doping drugs in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage.

Training programs are a fundamental tool for the development of high performance. Athletes follow specialized programs designed to help them reach their peak. Even so, some look to increase their advantage over opponents by utilizing illegal substances.

Types of Illegal Doping Drugs

Although testing provides some reassurance of legal competition, invariably, some doping instances will go undetected. Below are the most popular categories of banned performance-enhancing drugs and how they are used.

The World Anti-Doping Agency's 2021 Prohibited List shares all of the illegal performance-enhancing drugs and identifies whether they are prohibited at all times, prohibited only in competition, or prohibited in a particular sport.

Synthetic Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic steroids are popular agents in activities where bulk and strength count for performance. Although natural testosterone can be described as an anabolic agent, various synthetic versions of steroids have been made popular by bodybuilders.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shares that steroid use is more common among male non-athlete weightlifters in their 20s or 30s. Additionally, those with poor self-esteem, increased depression, and poor knowledge of health are more likely to engage in steroid use.

Examples: anadrol, dianabol, stanozolol

Most steroids are relatively easy to detect and amateur cheating has a low rate of success.

Testosterone and Related Hormones

Testosterone is a natural male hormone (but is also found in females, albeit in much smaller amounts). Increasing body testosterone provides an anabolic effect. Precursor hormones that lead to increased testosterone are also used.

Drug testers like to rely on 'normal ranges' because testosterone itself is naturally occurring. A normal testosterone range for males is 280 ng/dL to 1,100 ng/dL whereas the normal range for females is 15 ng/dL to 70 ng/dL.

Examples: testosterone, DHEA

Amphetamines and Other Stimulants

Various forms of amphetamines and stimulants like cocaine have been used in a variety of sports from football to cycling and weightlifting to sprinting. These chemical and drug agents work by stimulating the nervous system, improving an athlete's reaction time.

Some prescribed medications are also stimulants, such as those for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). An athlete who is taking this type of stimulant must apply for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) in order to compete.

Examples: dexedrine, fenfluramine, phentermine

EPO

Erythropoietin is short for EPO, a hormone that increases red blood cell (RBC) production which, in turn, improves oxygen availability to tissues. Increased oxygen improves performance, mainly in endurance events like marathons, triathlons, and endurance cycle racing.

EPO doping is sometimes referred to as gene doping. Because gene therapy has rapid advances, detecting this type of doping has been problematic. Though, some researchers are working to develop genetic detection tests to better determine if gene doping has occurred.

Examples: EPO, CERA

Blood Doping

Blood doping is the practice of drawing and saving your own blood, allowing the body to replenish its blood supply. Next, the blood is added back into the bloodstream to provide increased oxygen-carrying capacity, much like with EPO doping.

Diuretics and Other Masking Agents

When you take steroids and other drugs, they inevitably leave a trail that testers can find. One way to attempt to avoid this is to use another agent that increases urine output in the hopes of excreting traces of the banned drug. This is where diuretics and masking agents come into play.

The problem with this approach is that testers look for masking agents as well as banned substances. So, there is no way to escape detection unless the masking agent or diuretic is excreted or metabolized as well.

Examples: acetazolamide, chlorthalidone, desmopressin

Fat Burners

Drugs that promote muscle at the expense of fat appear to be in demand. These doping drugs can very sophisticated, with exotic compounds such as those used in traditional weight-loss treatments acting as a potential performance-enhancing agent.

DNP—which is short for 2,4-dinitrophenol—is one example of a fat-burning drug that was also considered a bodybuilding aid. But it gained the attention of the World Anti-Doping Agency after killing one person and leaving another seriously ill. Now it is on the agency's Prohibited List.

Examples: clenbuterol, oxilofrine

DNP has also sometimes been used in the manufacturing of explosives, highlighting just one of the reasons it is dangerous for human consumption.

Growth Hormones

Human growth hormone or HGH has been used as a supplemental drug for many years by bodybuilders and, more recently, by athletic sprinters. HGH is a naturally occurring substance produced by the body.

A range of drugs that stimulate growth hormone production in the body is targeted by testers. Among them are fibroblast growth factors (FGFs), hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF).

Peptide Hormones

The murky world of peptides, which are essentially small proteins, has been utilized for a range of performance targets. These targets include stimulating the production of growth hormone (GH) and enhancing muscle growth.

A majority of peptides used as doping drugs have not been approved for human consumption. This puts the athlete at risk since there is no clear understanding of how that particular substance affects the body.

Examples: chorionic gonadotrophin, corticorelin, luteinizing hormone

Beta-Blockers

Beta-blockers are a class of drugs traditionally used in heart disease and blood pressure treatment. They slow the heart rate down substantially. Competitors such as archers, shooters, and billiards players have used them to steady their shots.

In archery and shooting, beta-blockers are prohibited at all times; whereas in other sports—which include billiards, darts, and golf, for instance—they are only banned substances during competition.

Examples: acebutolol, celiprolol, propranolol

Other Substances

This group includes chemical agents with somewhat idiosyncratic uses, ranging from hormonal manipulation to metabolic effects. For example, the anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen, prescribed for breast cancer treatment, has been used by men to oppose the estrogenic effects of anabolic steroids.

Additional banned substances during competition include:

  • Narcotics (fentanyl, morphine, oxycodone)
  • Cannabinoids (except cannabidiol)
  • Glucocorticoids (cortisone, hydrocortisone, methylprednisolone)

Detecting Illegal Doping

Testing for illegal performance enhancing drugs in sports involves taking the athlete's urine or blood, then shipping it to a laboratory accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. This process is designed to protect the integrity of the sample taken.

If an athlete tests positive for a banned substance, the consequences can include disqualification, sanctions, and/or suspension. Anti-doping regulations are strict and hold athletes responsible for everything they put in their bodies, whether prescribed or not.

Even seemingly safe dietary supplements can sometimes present an issue for athletes because some have been found to contain banned substances. If these substances are detected, it can cause a positive result.

Drug testing of athletes is very sophisticated in the modern era and 'dumb' doping attempts will almost certainly be detected, resulting in the athlete being disqualified. Yet, while testing sophistication has grown, so has the ingenuity of the drug cheats.

Health Risks

In addition to risking their sports career, athletes who dope are also risking their own health. Potential health consequences associated with doping drugs include:

  • Heart problems
  • Strokes
  • Mental health effects
  • Kidney or liver damage
  • Reduced fertility, for men and women both
  • Brain damage

Frequently Asked Questions

What percentage of athletes use performance-enhancing drugs?

Studies suggest that 14% to 39% of adult elite athletes intentionally use doping, with use by recreational athletes around 18.4%. Though, some researchers say that it's hard to know how many athletes use banned substances because of inconsistent data reporting.

Are there any performance-enhancing drugs allowed in sports?

If a performance-enhancing drug is not on the World Anti-Doping Agency's Prohibited List, it is allowed in sports; however, that substance must also be approved by a governmental health authority for use by humans as a therapeutic.

Why is it important to test athletes for performance-enhancing drugs?

Performance-enhancing drugs can be harmful to an athlete's health while also providing an unfair competitive advantage. Testing for these drugs helps to protect the athlete's health while also protecting the integrity of sport.

What are the side effects of performance-enhancing drugs?

Side effects of performance-enhancing drugs vary based on the substance used but can sometimes include:

  • Anabolic steroids: acne, male pattern baldness, increased aggressiveness, impotence, increased breast size in males, growth of facial and other body hair in females
  • EPO: hypertension, anemia, stroke, blood cancer
  • Blood doping: blood clots, stroke
  • Human growth hormone: thyroid issues, severe headaches, loss of vision, diabetes, tumors, arthritis
  • Beta blockers: reduced blood pressure, sleep issues, airway spasms
  • Diuretics: dehydration, muscle cramps, dizziness, poor coordination, and balance
  • Stimulants: insomnia, anxiety, tremors, increased blood pressure, heart attack, stroke
  • Cannabinoids: heart rate increases, short-term memory issues, reduced reactivity and coordination
  • Narcotics: nausea, vomiting, decreased heart rate

A Word From Verywell

While many athletes don't rely on performance-enhancing substances, some do turn to illegal doping. These substances have negative consequences for both health and the integrity of sport.

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