Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Drugs In Sports

The issue of drugs in sports has gotten a lot of press in the past couple of years. Floyd Landis lost his Tour de France title after testing positive for testosterone following a stage in which he blew away the competition. Barry Bonds just surpassed Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list, and everyone thinks he doped. Sammy Sosa was once a skinny little 165 pound player, but a couple of years ago he was up to a ripped 240 pounds. Ben Johnson, back in the 1990's, tested positive for steroids at the Olympics, and later admitted that everyone uses drugs, but that someone spiked his sample.

I'm going to go out on a VERY thick limb and say drugs in sports is not the exception -- it's the rule. Back in 2001, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent article on drugs in sports for The New Yorker. Among the many good quotes (all quotes here are from that article), here is one relevant to the Barry Bonds situation:
An aging baseball star, for instance, may realize that what he needs to hit a lot more home runs is to double the intensity of his weight training. Ordinarily, this might actually hurt his performance. "When you're under that kind of physical stress," Charles Yesalis, an epidemiologist at Pennsylvania State University, says, "your body releases corticosteroids, and when your body starts making those hormones at inappropriate times it blocks testosterone. And instead of being anabolic--instead of building muscle--corticosteroids are catabolic. They break down muscle. That's clearly something an athlete doesn't want." Taking steroids counteracts the impact of corticosteroids and helps the body bounce back faster. If that home-run hitter was taking testosterone or an anabolic steroid, he'd have a better chance of handling the extra weight training.

This is the reality of the situation - steroids enhance recovery allowing an athlete to train harder and heavier and build more muscle. If you don't think it works (and until the early 1980's, doctors said steroids did nothing - despite 25+ years of evidence to the contrary among athletes and bodybuilders), check this out:

Or this:

[image source]

When Sosa and Bonds came into the league, they were both very thin (Sosa was actually smaller). As their careers passed age 30, both of them began to grow in size and strength (Sosa went from 165 as a rookie to about 240 the year he was battling a naturally huge Mark McGuire for the single season home run title, although McGuire was also using PEDs).

Charlie Francis, who trained disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson (for the record, no trainer would have his athlete on the steroid Johnson tested positive for - everyone knows it stays in the body for months or even a year - he was set up), makes a compelling case for why he put his athletes on drugs:

Francis was driven and ambitious, eager to give his athletes the same opportunities as their competitors from the United States and Eastern Europe, and in 1979 he began discussing steroids with one of his prize sprinters, Angella Taylor. Francis felt that Taylor had the potential that year to run the two hundred metres in close to 22.90 seconds, a time that would put her within striking distance of the two best sprinters in the world, Evelyn Ashford, of the United States, and Marita Koch, of East Germany. But, seemingly out of nowhere, Ashford suddenly improved her two-hundred-metre time by six-tenths of a second. Then Koch ran what Francis calls, in his autobiography, "Speed Trap," a "science fictional" 21.71. In the sprints, individual improvements are usually measured in hundredths of a second; athletes, once they have reached their early twenties, typically improve their performance in small, steady increments, as experience and strength increase. But these were quantum leaps, and to Francis the explanation was obvious. "Angella wasn't losing ground because of a talent gap," he writes; "she was losing because of a drug gap, and it was widening by the day." (In the case of Koch, at least, he was right. In the East German archives, investigators found a letter from Koch to the director of research at V.E.B. Jenapharm, an East German pharmaceutical house, in which she complained, "My drugs were not as potent as the ones that were given to my opponent Brbel Eckert, who kept beating me." In East Germany, Ungerleider writes, this particular complaint was known as "dope-envy.") Later, Francis says, he was confronted at a track meet by Brian Oldfield, then one of the world's best shot-putters: "When are you going to start getting serious?" he demanded. "When are you going to tell your guys the facts of life?" I asked him how he could tell they weren't already using steroids. He replied that the muscle density just wasn't there. "Your guys will never be able to compete against the Americans--their careers will be over," he persisted.
The problem of drug use will never be defeated:
The basic problem with drug testing is that testers are always one step behind athletes. It can take years for sports authorities to figure out what drugs athletes are using, and even longer to devise effective means of detecting them.

"The bottom line is that only careless and stupid people ever get caught in drug tests," Charles Yesalis says. "The elite athletes can hire top medical and scientific people to make sure nothing bad happens, and you can't catch them."

So obviously, we need to take another look at this whole issue.

Steroids are a form of technology, just like low-weight aerodynamic bikes in the Tour de France, just like high-tech drivers in golf, just like composite materials used in poles for the pole vault, among many examples. If we don't ban other forms of technology, why ban steroids?

It may be a moot point. In reality, steroids will soon be obsolete. Gene doping is the new frontier. Within five years I suspect that athletes will be able to turn off the myostatin gene that limits muscle growth. Cows born without this gene grow enormous (and lean), so you end up with animals that look like this:

One bodybuilder (Ronnie Coleman, pictured here) is already suspected of having done gene doping to limit myostatin production. He was already a phenomenal physical specimen, but he changed the nature of bodybuilding by competing at nearly 300 pounds with a minimal 4% bodyfat.

The only real question in seeing drug use or gene doping as technology and not as cheating is the health of the athletes. Many bodybuilders have died from improper use of diuretics and from overuse of steroids. As long as drugs are black market and illegal, it will be impossible for many athletes to get doctor supervision to make sure they are not hurting themselves. Elite athletes can afford the doctors, many others can't.

If we simply accept that drugs are a technology, and allow their use under doctor supervision, we eliminate all the hysteria around performance and records, and we protect the athletes from hurting themselves to stay competitive.

Most sports employs a 6:1 testosterone to epitestosterone ratio to determine if someone is using testosterone, while the average is 1:1; pro cycling uses a hematocrit (a measure of red blood cell density in blood) of 50 to limit EPO use, which thickens the blood with oxygen-carrying red blood cells, allowing better performance in endurance races, while the normal range is 36-48. These numbers recognize that drugs are being used, but put limits on their abuse, which to me seems reasonable.

As long as there is big money to be made in sports, athletes will seek ways to improve their performance. Let's make it legal, and let's make it as safe as possible. And let there be no * next to anyone's performance.


Nagarjuna said...

Bill, I agree with your analysis. Drugs and other forms of "artificial" internal (as well external enhancement) in sports are irrepressible. So, let's make them as safe as possible for everybody by legalizing them. The only problem I see with this is that there may be drugs or other forms of modification that are unsafe that will give those who use them an edge, and, if we try to forbid their use, athletes may still find ways to use them and beat out their "legal" competition. So, in the end, we could very well end up pretty well where we are now except that even "mediocre" athletes will be far stronger, more powerful, and more capable than they are now, while those on the illegal edge will continue to dominate their sports.

WH said...

I agree, Steve, which is why I advocate for allowing doctors to monitor athletes. In the case of the wrestler who killed his wife and child recently, the doctor is facing charges -- I don't think this is a good idea. These athletes need doctor supervision. If the doctors face prosecution for monitoring the athletes' health, they won't do it. That isn't a good situation.


Anonymous said...

I'm wondering here, doing this gene therapy, it probably would change an athlete's DNA permanently.
Wouldn't this affect their children?
Or if 2 athletes who've done it would have a child, wouldnt this cause the child to maybe be born with a deficiency?
Since 2 people with blue eyes tend to have a child with blue eyes, 2 people with black hair tend to have a child with black hair, I'd assume the same goes with this gene therapy.
I'd say these athletes should think really hard before doing something like this if they're thinking of having kids one day.


WH said...


No one knows at this point what the long-term outcomes of gene doping will be. Right now, the evidence suggests that it wouldn't likely impact their children, but this is so new that no one can say that definitively.

One wonders why the fleeting win is worth the health consequences. But many people are willing to take that risk.


martin said...

The problem is - if we legalize drugs, then it won't be a competition between athletes as such, but a competition between chemists and doctors etc. "Doctor X won a gold medal for best designer drug, used on specimen X".

It will ruin a lot of sport events world wide.

Maybe we should divide the atheltes into two categories - into a 'clean' elite and a 'medical' elite.

And then wait and see, which competitors will become the rolemodels for children and youngsters. I'm pretty sure about the result in Europe, but American youth is another question. It's just a suggestion :-)

Martin Holm, Denmark