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Sports, lies and drugs...

Doping is back in focus again after Lance Armstrong was stripped off his seven Tour de France titles last week. Hindustan Times takes a look at how the ugly side of sport has evolved, the elements involved and the industry it has created.

india Updated: Sep 02, 2012 01:07 IST
Krushmi Chheda
Krushmi Chheda
Hindustan Times

In today's competent world, professional sport represents a multi-million-dollar industry due to the amount of money associated with winning. The margin between the first and the second place is so minute at the elite level that in reality, athletes and coaches are ready to sacrifice and risk a great deal in order to obtain a competitive edge and enhance performance at all costs. Sports Illustrated questioned a cohort of elite Olympic athletes in an interview and found that a shocking 98 per cent would agree to take performance-enhancing substances to win if they were not caught. Furthermore, when questioned, "If you were given a performance enhancing substance and you would not be caught, win all competitions for 5 years, then die, would you take it?" more than 50% said 'Yes'.

Driven by the increase in money routinely invested for winning sporting events, unethical pharmacists, medical professionals, trainers and sports organisations have worked secretly with or without their athletes' consent, to develop sophisticated doping techniques to optimise performance.

The use of performance enhancements dates back to 776 BC when athletes used plants, mushrooms, herbs and wine to stimulate speed, endurance and mask pain during competing in the ancient Olympics. In 1930s the Nazi doctors used laboratory-produced testosterone and steroids to make soldiers more aggressive. They were also used for therapeutic purpose. However, in the 1940s these doping programmes were adopted by the athletes from the countries in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Bloc countries such as East Germany to win a number of medals.

Anti-doping testing of athletes was introduced in the 1972 Munich Games. Doping in sports has increased dramatically since then. By the 1980s the use of performance-enhancing drugs had reached epidemic proportions among elite athletes. The extent and benefits of doping in sport came to the forefront when Ben Johnson's gold medal was stripped in the 1988 Seoul Olympics for using the steroid stanazalol. In 1999, the IOC organised a World Conference on Doping in Sport in response to a shocking discovery of massive amounts of performance enhancing drugs found at the 1998 Tour de France. It was at this meeting that World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was founded.

The Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative BALCO Scandal, June 2003 was a major turning point in the sports industry, when the track and field coach Trevor Graham turned over to authorities a syringe containing tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), a previously unknown anabolic steroid. THG was considered a designer steroid, which was undetectable. Lab testing methods were quickly adjusted to detect THG. A number of famous elite athletes such as Marion Jones, Bill Romanowski, Jason Giami, Barry Bonds, Kelli White, Dwain Chambers, Kevin Toth, Regina Jacobs, John McEwen and Melissa Price associated with the BALCO scandal were stripped of their titles and banned for life from competing after testing positive.

Armstrong scandal
The latest doping scandal is that of one of sports most celebrated idols, Lance Armstrong. In June 2012, USADA charged Armstrong with drug trafficking and using banned steroids, the red blood cell booster erythropoietin (EPO), and human growth hormone as well as illegal blood transfusions dating back to 1986. He has been stripped off his seven Tour de France titles based on blood samples during the year 2009 and 2010 as well as testimonies from up to 10 former team-mates accusing him of doping.

High-tech race
The high-tech race between testing methods and new doping techniques has pushed both sides to the cutting edge of science. Over the past few years the drugs available for medical conditions have become widely available to athletes and coaches. Testing for substances is technically challenging, expensive and only performed by about 35 WADA-accredited laboratories worldwide. Steroids are still the most detected performance-enhancing drugs by WADA laboratories. However, athletes are constantly finding sophisticated ways of doping to avoid detection.

Performance enhancing drugs are frequently produced in pharmaceutical laboratories, but, in nations where stricter laws are present, they are also produced in small home-made underground laboratories, usually from raw substances that are imported from other countries, the majority of steroids are obtained illegally through black market trade. These drugs are not only available to the elite athletes but also distributed in health clubs as sports supplements. A study conducted by the IOC in 2001, found that out of 634 protein supplements from 215 companies spread over 13 countries, 14.8% supplements were contaminated by banned substances, which were not mentioned on the label. Hence doping in sports has increased dramatically, so have the methods for detecting it and for keeping it from being detected.

Indian shame
Performance-enhancement doping is not restricted to particular sport or the west only. Athletes from all over the world competing in various sports are succumbing to using illegal drugs to meet the gruelling requirements of their sport. In October 2006, the cricket world was shocked to learn that two Pakistani fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif, tested positive for the steroid nandrolone. India has also witnessed a number of cases where athletes have been found to be guilty of consuming banned steroids. Indian discus throwers Seema Antil, Neelam Jaswant Singh and Anil Kumar tested positive for steroids and stimulants banned by WADA. Indian weight lifters have often been found to have used banned drugs in competition such as in case of Satheesha Rai, Sanamacha Chanu and Kunjarani Devi.

Last year out of competition testing conducted by Indian Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), resulted in one of the biggest Indian doping scandals. Eight athletes failed the WADA tests. Six female 400m runners, a female shotputter and a male long-jumper failed the drugs tests. Three out of the four runners in the 400m relay team, Ashwini Akkunji, Mandeep Kaur and Sini Jose tested positive for banned steroids, which resulted in suspension of Ukranian coach Yuri Ogrodnik. Recent developments in conducting these drug tests have shed light on the prevalence of doping in Indian Sport.

In conclusion, the increasing number of cases of doping in Indian sport should be curbed by conducting regular anti doping tests by authorities such as Sports Authority of India, NADA and IAAF. Athletes should be encouraged to make informed choices and anti-doping education programmes should be conducted at various sporting organisations for athletes and coaches coming from both urban and rural areas.

The writer is a sports nutritionist at the Centre for Sports Medicine, Kokilaben Hospital, Mumbai.

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