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Drug Use In Olympics Essay, Research Paper

A constant battle has been fought as the International Olympic Committee struggles to keep drug testing up-to-date and effective. We have come to associate drug use with a few famous names of fallen heroes, such as Ben Johnson, but few realize just how widespread drug use is in Olympic sports and how small a percentage of offenders ever get caught. Recent studies show that increased testing procedures have done little to deter athletes from relying on drugs to aid performance and that drug use among Olympic athletes is actually on the rise.

Performance-enhancing drug use is not limited to the Olympic games. There are few sports that have not been affected in some way by drug use, and the effect has usually been negative. Certain sports quickly come to mind when we thing of drug use. We think of bodybuilders and weight lifters as obvious candidates for using steroids and other muscle or strength-building substances, but few would consider long distance runners or gymnasts as potential drug abusers. The fact is that there are a numerous of substances currently available with potential benefits for athletes in all sports.

These desired effects range from increasing muscle size and strength, to decreasing fatigue, providing quick temporary weight loss, inhibiting growth, and even simple pain relief. Most professional sports do not have rigorous testing procedures for performance enhancing drugs for the simple facts that there are too many drugs to test for, and the tests are deemed too easy to beat. This presents the International Olympic Committee ( IOC ) with one of it s greatest challenges; trying to keep it s drug testing procedures at a par with the technology of today s pharmacists. Many ask what constitutes a performance-enhancing drug. An ergogenic or performance aid is defined as any substance or method used to enhance athletic performance (Tipton 13). Currently, the IOC has over two hundred substances on it s Prohibited Substance list, which are broken down into five main categories; Stimulants, Narcotics, Anabolic Agents, Diuretics, and Peptide and glycoprotein hormones and analogues. The first major problem that the IOC faces when posing these tests is that many of these drugs can be cycled , where the athlete stops taking doses long enough ahead of time so that no trace of the drug will show up in urine samples. Most athletes are aware of the time needed to stay clean , or off the drugs, so that they will test negative, and many common drugs are untraceable in the system after only days or weeks. One of the more popular drugs of late, Human Growth Hormone, or somatotropin, is rapidly metabolized by the liver and has a half-life in the blood of approximately 17 to 45 minutes. Because of this expeditious breakdown, detecting GH in a drug screen is close to impossible (Street 228). Another problem is the testing procedure itself. Samples are tested for a list of known substances, and since new drugs have to be used and discovered in tests before the IOC is aware of them and can include them on the list, those athletes who have access to the newest products have the advantage of using drugs not yet on the banned list. In addition, most of these drugs leave certain traces, or signatures , in urine samples, and it is often these signatures and not the actual drugs that show up in positive tests.

As each drug is chemically unique, each signature left behind is also unique, and therefore a common practice is the creation of designer drugs , or chemically altered drugs. By slightly altering the chemical composition of a drug it can be tailored to an athlete s specific needs, and the new drug will have the added bonus of an unknown signature and be therefore untraceable. Quite often, placing a substance on the banned list will actually stimulate interest among athletes and lead to increased use of that drug. The logic being that if a drug is placed on the list, it must provide some sort of advantage, or the IOC would not bother to control it. Although intended to deter drug use in the athletes, Ironically, the IOC catalog of 200 banned substances has come to serve as a shopping list. for many Olympic athletes (Bamberger and Yaeger 7). In addition, many of these athletes have access to the same high-tech equipment used by the IOC to detect drugs, allowing them to familiarize themselves with levels of detection and necessary clearance times for different drugs. This is how many athletes are able to consistently avoid testing positive, while maintaining a diverse regimen of drugs. In addition to prohibited substances, the IOC also lists some classes of drugs as being subject to certain restrictions, including alcohol and marijuana. While these substances are not believed to provide the athlete with any unfair advantage, they are regulated for safety reasons. Certain procedures have also been prohibited in Olympic competition, including drug test manipulation and blood doping.

Blood doping, now common in many endurance events, involves systematically removing quantities of an athlete s blood before a competition and storing it. Over time the athlete s body replaces the lost blood and returns blood levels to normal. Finally, just prior to a competition, the stored blood is re-injected creating an artificially high blood level and a resulting high level of red blood cells. While extremely risky to the athlete, this has the effect of dramatically increasing the blood s ability to carry oxygen to the muscles, therefore increasing the athlete s endurance. Because blood doping does not involve the introduction of any foreign chemicals into the athlete s body, detection is very difficult and the procedure usually goes unnoticed. In essence, sports medicine recommendations and actions taken since 1896 have been notoriously slow and cautious in addressing and monitoring use of substances or methods that transgress the spirit of the modern Olympics and violate the ethics of medical practice and athletic competition (Tipton 14-15).

In addition to the difficulties involved in detecting many drugs and illegal procedures, the IOC is faced with the tremendous cost involved in implementing an all-encompassing testing protocol for all athletes. In his article The Drug Detectives , Rae Corelli states that for the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, the IOC will deploy hand-picked technicians and three $700,000 high-resolution mass spectrometers to perform drug tests at a cost of about $800 per test (Corelli 1).

Although many recent studies estimate that roughly 80 percent of all Olympic athletes are currently using, or have at some time used, some type of performance-enhancing drug, only a handful have ever been caught and punished. This again points to the inefficiency and futility of the IOC s efforts to diminish the prevalence of drugs in Olympic competition. Due to the lack of success that the IOC has had in controlling the rampant spread of drug use, many have asked why they do not simply acquiesce to the popular trends and legalize the use of these drugs in competition, and some feel that sooner or later the world s athletic authorities will either have properly to enforce their bans on the use of such performance-enhancing drugs as steroids or they must legalise their use (The Steroid Olympics 1).

While most will agree that drug use is now rampant throughout the Olympics, eliminating the tests and lifting bans would surely cause the use and abuse of these substances to increase dramatically. While many of the current banned substances are quite legal, including caffeine or ephedrine (an over-the-counter asthma medication), others are illegal. If allowed into the Olympics and other sports, we would surely see a drastic rise in the black-market trafficking of anabolic steroids and other dangerous drugs. While these bans are forced, athletes who chose to remain natural and compete without drugs still have a chance. Lifting the bans would effectively force all serious Olympic hopefuls to take potentially dangerous drugs. Even with the current bans and testing procedures, the nationalistic driving force for Olympic competition has been athletic performance, and because of this relationship, sports medicine has become an integral component of the Olympic movement (Tipton 2). Without drug testing, public perception of the Olympic ideal would certainly fade, as the primary competition would then be between the pharmacologists, chemists, and sports doctors of the participating countries. Even the confessions of the few former athletes who have come forward have led many to become disillusioned with the games and believe that athletes have lost sight of the true Olympic intent.

Another reason why the use of these substances is controlled is that many are potentially dangerous to the health of the athlete. Athletes have been known to suffer cardiac arrest due to excessive use of stimulants, and anabolic steroids have been linked to health problems ranging from liver and kidney dysfunction to various forms of cancer. Many of the drugs today lack the extensive testing needed to predict possible side effects and consequences of long-term use. Athletes commonly prescribe their own drug regimen, many believing that more is better , and often produce drastic or even fatal side effects. In their quest to achieve the immortality of the record books, many athletes find themselves facing their own mortality much sooner than expected.

Many would ask why athletes would put themselves at such a tremendous and unknown risk to both their health and reputation. Some believe that we have glorified the Olympic medal winners to a point that some people will risk everything for a chance to be among those few. What American is not familiar with the names of Carl Lewis, Dan O Brien, or Tara Lapinsky? Olympic stardom often brings with it huge endorsement contracts, television and public appearances, and careers in broadcasting or coaching. To many athletes, these rewards are worth any risk. As well, the common motto in many sports is win at all costs , and the belief is that nobody loves a loser. How many people know who came fourth in any race? Although it is hard to lay blame on the public, they are responsible for placing tremendous pressure on athletes to win, and exposing star athletes as drug users can have downsides, such as creating international tensions and bad publicity for the Olympics (Street 230). Americans do not hope for success from their athletes, they expect and even demand it, and exposing the public to the darker side of elite-level sports could produce negative sentiments towards the Olympic Games (Street 230). In many countries, athletes have no control over their training methods, including doping procedures. They are told by a group of coaches when to train, when to sleep, what to eat, and what drugs to take. They are often not aware of what they are taking, or what the possible risks are. There is tremendous pressure placed on the athletes of these countries by their government to perform well, as in many countries, as in the former Eastern bloc nations, athletics are deeply intertwined with political fortune. Winning demonstrates greatness as a political power and creates a strong national identity (Street 230).

So what possible course of action can the IOC take to stop this current trend that threatens the Olympic Games? It seems that the best plan is to continue with their current procedure, and enforce testing wherever possible. The IOC is sending a message to athletes, that they are aware of the use of drugs but they will never condone it, and that they will continue to implement testing in an attempt to discourage the spread of substance abuse throughout Olympic sports. With continued funding and research, the IOC may someday develop testing procedures more advanced than the technology available to the athletes. This would hopefully eliminate the use performance-enhancing drugs and return the Olympics to the level playing field that was originally intended.

Works Cited

Bamberger, Michael, and Don Yaeger. Over the Edge (widespread use of performance- enhancing drugs by Olympic athletes). Sports Illustrated 14 April 1997: 60-68.

Corelli, Rae. The Drug Detectives. Maclean s 22 July 1996: 28-29.

Hartl, Stephan. The Pill that Ruled the World. Flex April 1997: 166-171.

Street, Chris. Reality Check on Growth Hormone. Flex June 1998: 228-231.

The Steroid Olympics. Economist 4 July 1992: 324

Tipton, Charles M. Sports Medicine: A Century of Progress. Journal of Nutrition May 1997: 878S-885S.


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