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Opinion: Chemical Enhancement in Sport

Sep 1, 2000  - Brent S. Rushall

Much has been said and written about drugs in sport. With each passing year, there are increasing numbers of athletes caught taking banned drugs/chemicals that enhance sport performance. In the recent Tour de France cycling race, almost half of the urine samples yielded traces of banned substances. An underlying inference is that anyone who tests positive for drugs is a cheat. Rightfully, so.

However, it is almost totally accepted in high level sport that athletes take chemicals, often termed "nutritional supplements," with an intention to chemically enhance performance with "legal" substances. Whether the ingested or injected substances are banned or legal is not the point. The major feature of today's sport is that attempts to chemically enhance performance are virtually universal.

Behaviorally, there is no difference between athletes who ingest/inject banned substances and those who ingest/inject non-banned substances. Both seek chemical enhancement of performances.

Recently, the Stanford (USA) swimmers, Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres, openly revealed their planned consumption of potent cocktails of chemicals with the intention of legally enhancing their performances.

An open industry of chemical ("legal") sporting performance enhancement has mushroomed across the Internet. The Stanford swimmers pay $500 per month for their "legal" chemical fixes from "sport nutritionists."

If either or both Thompson and Torres go on to win Olympic medals they will be hailed as heroes. They will have competed within the Olympic "rules." If, in later years, any of the chemicals they used were to be added to the banned list because they were deemed performance enhancing, they still would remain heroes.

Over the past decade, there has been a clamor to strip the chemically enhanced East German women of their medals, earned when they were using state-sanctioned steroids. During those years, all East German athletes passed the testing procedures that were designed to catch "cheats." Retroactive stripping of medals has been steadfastly resisted by the IOC.

However, is there much difference between what the East Germans did and what the Australians and Americans are doing now? One difference is that the East Germans did not know their "little blue pills" were performance enhancing. At least the two swimming stars from Stanford know what they are doing and openly express their intentions to do so! One could make a case for one being worse that the other (the reader can decide which is worse).

At the Atlanta Olympic Games, some athletes from former Soviet Union member countries tested positive for bromantan and were initially banned, only to have their punishments overturned later. At least one medallist swimmer was among those athletes. Many athletes used DHEA. Those are just two substances that were used for chemical enhancement of performances that were "legal" at that time. After the Games, both were added to the banned-substances list.

Athletes, who now acted the same as those in Atlanta, would be sanctioned.

Why is it reasonable to advocate stripping the East Germans of medals when they passed all drug tests, and not strip the Atlanta athletes who did not pass the drug tests but got away with it on some technicality? In the sporting world, where fairness is fast being diluted as an admirable characteristic, is it right to have selective multiple standards for condemnation?

What happens if Australian, USA, and other nations' athletes all pass their drug tests in Sydney? What if blood and urine samples are stored as advocated by Australian athletes? What happens when new drugs are added to the banned list and those stored samples eventually test positive? Should the Australians or Americans be retroactively stripped of their Sydney medals? If it is good enough for the East Germans, then it should be good enough for all athletes.

The current mania for ingesting and injecting chemicals, often disguised as "sports nutrition," has all the behavioral earmarks of the East German conduct that permeated sports for 20 years. The purpose has remained constant -- produce superior performances through chemical means -- forget the legal and banned substance distinction.

The wholesale explosion of this chemical-enhancement industry, which has nothing to do with ethical nutrition, is fraught with dangers to which athletes are exposed. No one knows what are the long-term effects on health of ingesting concentrated massive doses of refined chemicals. Of particular importance are the interactions of these chemicals with each and with legitimate therapeutic medicines. What is the social value of publicly exhibiting drug/chemical taking to achieve performance advantages? What sort of example or model is this setting for impressionable minds? Can enhancing other physical and mental states be seen as very different to using chemicals to enhance sporting performance? Is non-medically supervised drug taking to be endorsed in one arena, and condemned in others?

It is reasonable to assume that more than 90 percent of all finalists in all sports at the Sydney Olympics will be ingesting some substances/chemicals believing they will derive performance benefits. Some will use banned substances and not get caught, particularly those who use substances for which there are poor or no tests; and some might get caught, but probably only a very few. None will be caught if they use legal (read that as "non-banned" or "yet-to-be banned") substances.

Indeed, Sydney will not be the "drug free" Games as hoped, but will be the most open Games for chemical ingestion/injection to date.

A legacy of the Sydney Games could well be a parade of very ill individuals, 10 to 20 years down the road. There could be a similarity to the sorry parade of unfortunate former East German athletes who have manifested their health problems so publicly in the past few years during the trials of former East German sporting officials.

This situation will only get worse as society accepts and marvels at attempts to introduce unnatural chemicals into the body to derive a sporting edge.

What does this say about modern sport?

Respectfully submitted, Brent S. Rushall, Ph.D., R.Psy.
Professor of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences
San Diego State University