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Doping in Sports: Why Aren’t More Athletes Using Performance Enhancing Drugs Being Caught?

By: , Posted on: November 4, 2016


It seems whenever we are in an Olympic and Paralympic year there are plenty of news stories about athletes who cheat by doping; that is, using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). These stories focus on the athletes who get caught and striped of their medal or lose their award. It is well known, regrettably, that such cheating goes on all the time by athletes of all competitive levels. The desire and drive to be successful in sport is such a motivator that some individuals are willing to cut corners, break laws and endanger their own health to succeed.

The sport governing bodies that monitor athletes for such practices work tremendously hard and have extremely difficult responsibilities in trying to keep sports clean. The main international agency with this role is the Word Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which was instrumental prior to the Rio Olympics in providing evidence of state sponsored doping by the Russian national sports teams that resulted in many of their athletes being band from the Olympics. In addition to WADA, there are also many individual nation anti-doping agencies too (for example, US Anti-Doping or UK Anti-doping ) that work equally hard in trying to keep sports clean.

With all the high profile doping cases in the news, the public can get the perception from these reports that athletes are being monitored extremely well and the cheaters are getting caught and kicked out. The situation is actually not that clear cut. Agencies such as WADA have the responsibility for monitoring a multitude of sports and athletes on an annual basis as well as during special sporting events such as this year’s summer Olympics. The logistics of collecting biological specimens from athletes and analyzing them for PEDs is daunting (the WADA “prohibited list” has several hundred items on it!). Bio-specimens such as urine or blood samples have to be obtained from the athlete. This involves multiple samples being collected and processed, some for immediate analysis and others stored for later confirmatory analysis (if need be). These bio-specimens then have to undergo complex and precise biochemical analysis procedures to test for the banned PEDs.

With all the great work being done by the anti-doping agencies it can be dis-hearting to hear that some experts say that perhaps only about 10% of the cheaters are being caught. This begs the question then – “How are athletes avoiding detection and why more aren’t being caught?”

Athletes who dope by using PEDs have the odds in their favor in many respects. First of all there is just simply a relatively low probability of being tested for doping in some situations. Not all of the nearly 11,000 athletes at the Rio Olympics were drug tested; it just was not feasible or logistically possible. Yes, top finishers in events who won medals certainty were; but, not every single athlete. Most enforcement agencies do regularly-scheduled and random testing throughout the year, but again think about the thousands and thousands of athletes in the world at countless sporting events. It’s just an impossibly to test everyone. Also, keep in mind that the analysis procedure for the collected bio-specimens is extremely expensive; e.g., in 2015 WADA alone had budget of $29,508,116. So, financial restrictions as well as logistical ones can influence the amount of testing.

Athletes who use doping agents also have a variety of strategies to avoid detection. For example, they can use what are referred to as masking agents. These can be used to speed up the elimination of PEDs from the body or event mask the detection of the PEDs in the bio-specimen to be analyzed. These masking agents do not work with all types of PEDs, but there are select ones which work well enough to potentially conceal usage of a prohibitive substance.

Another tactic used by athletes to avoid detection involves waiting an appropriate “washout” time period. That is, the athlete uses the PEDs during periods of training to enhance the amount of intensive exercise they can perform. This enhanced training leads to improvements in muscular strength and endurance. The athlete can stop taking the PEDs, keep training, and wait for the normal biological removal process to eliminate traces of the PEDs in their body (in physiology this is referred to as “metabolic clearance rate”). The athlete loses some benefit because they have stopped taking the PEDs, but they have still improved their overall physical fitness level due to their enhanced training while on the PEDs. This fitness improvement will diminish over time, but enough of a residual may remain that during a competition the doping athlete may still have a slight advantage.

Another means of evading detection is simply trying a “slight of hand” approach. That is, athletes switch out their actual bio-specimen sample which would test positive with another sample that is clean. This approach has been documented as being used by some individual athletes as well as a procedure which was used in some of the state suspected doping programs supposedly run by several nations, the most recent being Russia. WADA and other such agencies have developed rigid procedures to ensure a proper “chain of custody” for bio-specimens to prevent such occurrence; but, still some athletes try this approach and assuredly have been successful.

Finally, some athletes are inventive and are constantly seeking out new drugs or procedures to gain an advantage. They look for PEDs that are not on the WADA prohibited list and hence won’t be tested for in the collected bio-specimens. At a later time WADA might add such new PEDs to its listing, once a scientific investigation shows they should be banned, but until then its use and detection might not lead to an athlete’s disqualification. It important to remember that pharmaceutical companies have a multitude drugs in research and development; and while they might be developed for valid medical reasons these drugs can have direct or indirect (i.e., side-effects) biochemical-biological actions that lead to an athletes’ physiology becoming altered in such a way that their sports performance is improved. In other words, sometimes athletes are staying one step ahead of the scientists in trying to find and seek out new PEDs.

Hopefully someday in the near future cheating in sport by doping will be a thing of the past; but, currently that is not the case. The lure of sporting success is just too strong, and in some people’s minds the “ends justify the means”. It is important that the public and society keep vigilant on this topic and we not become complacent and accepting. To me, sport and sporting competition has always been a great teacher of life lessons and how to deal with success, failure and adversity; but, such lessons should always be learned on a “level playing field”.

See also: Wada publishes report highlighting ‘serious failings’ at Olympic Games

Dr Anthony Hackney

HackneyDr. Anthony “Tony” C. Hackney (Twitter: @AC_Hackney) is a full professor at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill in the Department of Exercise & Sport Science, with a joint appointment in the Department of Nutrition-School of Public Health and several adjunct appointments in the UNC School of Medicine. He also holds faculty appointments in several universities in Latin America.

He has over 200 published research articles and book chapters, is a fellow in the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Academy of Kinesiology, and a member of the Physiological Society of Great Britain and the American Physiological Society. He is a three time recipient of Fulbright Scholar awards from the US Department of State, having served in Eastern Europe. He has also been awarded numerous teaching, service and research awards from UNC, as well as from universities overseas and international organizations; and to date, he has lectured and conducted research in 40 countries.

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