Every few years, another top athlete is busted for using drugs to enhance their athletic performance. What exactly are these drugs, and what do they do?
The first evidence of performance-enhancing drugs in sport comes from the original Olympic games in Ancient Greece, where athletes would eat hallucinogenic mushrooms, poppy seeds, and raw animal testicles to boost their performance, according to a paper by Penn State Professor Charles Yesalis.
In medieval times, organized sport was practically non-existent, but warriors from many different cultures, including vikings, knights, and African tribes, used mushrooms and plants rich in stimulating ingredients such as the psychedelic bufotenin to increase their performance in battle.
1. Human growth hormones
Image of IGF-1 3D model courtesy of Wikipedia.
Human growth hormones are an insulin-like substance that is actually produced naturally by the body, promoting growth in nearly every cell, and is very important during childhood. However, by taking more of this substance, athletes can boost muscle, reduce fat and improve endurance.
2. Gene doping
Image courtesy of brian0918™ via Wikipedia Commons.
Over the last two decades, there has been great scientific advancement in the field of gene therapy, enabling the repair of genes that are mutated or defective from birth. However, as with other medical advances, coaches and athletes have found ways to use gene manipulation as a performance-enhancer.
One method includes using a virus to deliver a gene that controls the release of erythropoietin, or EPO, a hormone that controls red blood cell production, according to the University of Chicago’s medical school. In 1998, a team sponsored by watchmaker Festina was banned from the Tour de France after being caught with EPO drugs.
Used on healthy humans, the treatment increases the amount of red blood cells, which are responsible for bringing oxygen to the brain and the muscles. More oxygen means better performance.
While there is no evidence that athletes have used this doping method yet, there’s also no good way of proving it conclusively, according to the Univeristy of Chicago.
Photo courtesy of jgoge via Flickr.
When spectator sports regained popularity in the 19th century stimulants were increasingly becoming synthesized as science advanced, and their use in sport became rampant. In fact, the drug use in sports was considered standard practice until the 1920s, Yesalis writes.
The types of stimulants used by athletes of the time included coffee, alcohol, morphine, ether, strychnine (which is fatal in large doses but stimulating in small), and the poisonous plant belladonna.
These substances, while fatal in large doses, helped athletes stay focused on the contest and overcome their physical limitations of strength and fatigue.
Use of stimulants continued well into the 20th century, and new substances such as nitroglycerin (used in heart attack medicine and explosives), cocaine and amphetamine was introduced. In modern sports, however, drug detection technology and other performance enhancers have phased out the use of stimulants in sports.
4. Anabolic steroids
Photo courtesy of Local Fitness.
Bringing to mind bulging bodybuilders and aggressive baseball players, this method of performance-enhancement may be the most notorious.
Invented in the ‘30s, this treatment became popular in the post-war era, especially among Soviet athletes.
Functioning similarly to testosterone, steroids stimulate a certain part of muscle cells, causing them to increase the production of protein and hence the size of the muscle, according to the University of Maryland’s Center for Abuse Research.
However, regular use of steroids also have negative effects such as liver damage, high blood pressure, heart damage, impotence, and the development of breasts.
For women, it causes breast reduction, excessive hair growth, and a deepening of the voice. This became increasingly obvious with the very masculine-appearing Soviet and East German athletes of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Professor Yesalis writes
Marion Jones was caught for injecting steroids in 2007, according to the Huffington Post, and in 2016 it was revealed that 14 Russian athletes had been using steroids as part of a government-run doping program during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
5. Blood doping
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army via Expert Infantry on Flickr.
A more subtle way of increasing performance, blood transfusions or blood doping are methods designed for increasing a person’s amount of red blood cells.
By doing so, they increase an athlete’s aerobic, or stamina, performance, according to Science in the News, a magazine by Harvard Ph.D. students.
This method is almost impossible to detect as long as red blood cells aren’t increased to over the natural threshold of 50%. It was used by Lance Armstrong (in addition to testosterone, hormone injections, and the pain relieving, energy-boosting drug cortisone).
In addition to all of these methods, however, there are designer drugs made specifically for evading drug tests, and for each new drug, regulators have to find a new way of testing for it – making doping regulation a steep hill to climb.