Wednesday, 4 April 2012

D is for... Drugs

The crowd noise dies down as the eight athletes settle in their positions, preparing themselves for the biggest 10 seconds of their lives. The starter readies the competitors, before a pistol bang signals the start of the race. Arms pump as the sprinters spring out of their blocks and rise to their feet; faces grimaced as they try to get the maximum out of their bodies. The race is over in less than 10 seconds, with the winner obliterating the field as a New World Record of 9.79 second flashes up on the scoreboard. The first man to ever run the 100 metres in under 9.8 seconds – incredible!

Ben Johnson, one of athletics' most notorious drug cheats
The race above was the 100 metres men’s final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, now unofficially known as “the dirtiest race in history”. Six of the eight athletes have been accused of taking steroids at some point in their careers, with the two clean athletes finishing 4th and 6th. The result of the race, and the subsequent fall-out from the discovery that the winner (Ben Johnson) had failed a drugs test the following day, shook the athletics world, with its repercussions still being felt today.

Steroids in sports

The history of steroids can be traced back to the early 1930s, when two German chemists pinpointed and synthesised a male hormone, before creating the first batch of synthetic testosterone. Steroids were first used for sporting benefits by the Soviet Union in the 1940s with the U.S. soon following suit, and the first commercially available steroid was made available in 1958. The impact of steroids on sporting performance was remarkable, and their use became widespread in the 1960s, well before drug testing was introduced at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Oral-Turinabol - the choice of steroid for the GDR
The most comprehensive doping regime discovered was conducted by the GDR state, with East German athletes systemically given steroids as part of a programme designed to make the nation the world’s leader in sports. The results were impressive, with the small nation finishing in second place in the medals tables at three Summer Olympics between 1974 and 1988 (they boycotted the 1984 Olympics). The GDR state even tested their athletes before sending them to international competitions to ensure that they wouldn’t be detected, with only one East German athlete ever officially failing a drugs test.

Although steroid use probably peaked in the 1980s, the use of performance enhancing drugs has continued in sport right through to the current day, with new cases of failed drug tests being reported every year. The war between the testers and the physicians continues unabated, with new tests, drugs, and methods to cover their use being discovered all the time.

The side-effects of steroids

Every now and then a debate re-opens in sport about whether there should be two Olympics: one for the athletes who choose to use performance enhancing drugs, and one for clean athletes. This notion is of course ridiculous for several reasons, not least that the use of anabolic steroids has been discovered to be dangerous and can cause permanent damage. Unfortunately we'll have to continue to live with drug cheats in our sports, although we have to make it our responsibility to fully educate people about the drugs in question so they're aware of any consequences they may suffer if they choose to go down that dark path.

Heidi Krieger in her competitive days
After the East German doping scandal became public it was estimated that 800 East German athletes developing serious ailments through their state-administered doping scheme. The ailments were wide-ranging, from breast and testicular cancer, to heart problems and infertility. One of the female East German athletes, Heidi Krieger, suffered such serious androgenic effects that she later chose to undergo sex-reassignment therapy, and had her name changed to Andreas. Other possible side effects of anabolic steroids include liver damage, kidney problems, mood swings, and high blood pressure.

The next steps

Unfortunately the use of performance enhancing substances in sport seems set to continue for the foreseeable future, with little that the authorities can do to stop it. Money must continue to be invested into new drug testing methods, with athletes encouraged to speak up if they are ever offered drugs, or know anything about their possible usage. 

The athletics record books need to be thoroughly reviewed and revised, with any marks set during the period when drug testing was insubstantial (maybe from 1970-1990) wiped out. Whilst this may unfairly affect a handful of clean athletes, I think this is an unfortunate consequence that will have to be accepted. It's farcial that up to 12 women's athletics world records set in the 1980s are almost untouchable, despite the increase in diet knowledge, training techniques and sports science over the past 25 years.

Drug use is something that the vast majority of sports fans despise, and I hope that this widespread condemnation of performance-enhancing drugs will encourage future generations of athletes to stay clean. However history tells us that this will not be a war which is easily won, and one we must continue to fight for.


  1. Thanks for the information. It really is unfair and is very unhealthy. I wonder how the athletes can feel they deserve to win when they know they used steroids?

  2. Absolutely fascinating. I didn't know a lot of this, so thanks for the education. Great post.

  3. Excellent post, Evan. I really liked the opening sequence!

  4. Interesting stuff, Evan. I agree with El, the opening was very grabbing, but the rest was all good info too.