The science of doping, from chewing raw animal testicles to new-age drugs

Doctors, physicians and even certain governments have gone to lengths to develop methods, drugs and masking agents, to give their athlete an unfair advantage. To catch these cheats, anti doping body has to constantly develop and update their science
Anti-doping control kits are pictured at the stadium in Daegu, on August 24, 2011, ahead of the IAAF World Athletics Championships.(REUTERS)
Anti-doping control kits are pictured at the stadium in Daegu, on August 24, 2011, ahead of the IAAF World Athletics Championships.(REUTERS)
Updated on Jul 26, 2016 01:08 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByHT Correspondent, New Delhi

Anti doping is an expensive science. The revelation of the lengths athletes could go to cheat, and hide their transgression, came to light with the Michele Ferrari episode in cycling in 2004. The Italian physician had made a career out of helping cyclists cheat the system, and get away without raising any flag.

Doctors, physicians and even certain governments have gone to lengths to develop methods, drugs and masking agents, to give their athlete an unfair advantage. To catch these cheats, anti doping body has to constantly develop and update their methods. It is simply a race between bad science and good science. The cost of this competition is high. The World Anti Doping Agency is estimated to function on an annual budget of $30 million, i.e.Rs 202 crore per year. But it is something that has to be done, regardless of the cost, for the credibility of sport is at stake.

History of doping

Doping has come a long way. In ancient times, athletes have been known to chew on raw animal testicles to give them a testosterone boost.

Athletes of the 19th century fortified themselves with coca leaves, cocaine and alcohol. Thomas Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon with the help of raw egg, strychnine and shots of brandy given to him at regular intervals by his attentive coach, according to a report on history of doping by Reuters.

“Doping has always been part of the Olympics, but drugs have not always been seen as a problem, they have become a problem,” Martin Polley, an Olympic historian at Britain’s Southampton University, told Reuters.

Athletes competing in the earliest days of the modern Olympics, which began in Athens in 1896, felt perfectly free to take medicines, stimulants and “tonics,” Vanessa Heggie, a sports medicine historian at Cambridge University, told Reuters. Injections of strychnine, tinctures of cocaine and sips of alcohol were all used in normal medical practice to treat aches, pains and fatigue.

The Soviet Union was later revealed to have run an extensive state-funded doping programme.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet State Sport Committee ordered several research institutions to conduct studies on the effect of performance-enhancing supplements and their possible use by Soviet athletes.

Soviet scientists found that creatine, an organic acid that increases muscular capacity, improved runners’ performance by 1 percent in the 100-metre dash and by 1.7 percent in the 200 metres. Further, according to a research by Nikolai Volkov, chairman of the department of biochemistry and bioenergetics at the Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism, two state institutes conducted research to perfect blood doping, a medical procedure that increases the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream.

The turnaround

The death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen at the Rome Games in 1960, thought to have been caused by amphetamines -- a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant, is considered the turning point for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on doping.

However, as soon as the fight against stimulants and steroids began to produce results, potential cheats rapidly shifted towards blood doping in the 1970s and 1980s, as mentioned earlier in the case of Soviet Union. The IOC banned blood doping as a method in 1986, but was not able to put in place a reliable test for the blood drug erythropoietin (EPO) until the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Modern cheats

With amount of money at stake in modern sports, doping has become an extensive science. The idea that athletes won’t risk cheating for the fear of getting caught cannot hold water, as anti-doping, it has been found, is always a step behind the science of cheating. Anti-doping has been reactive than proactive. The resources modern-day athletes have, and the assistance they get from doctors and experts in cheating, and hiding their transgressions, are beyond what a layman can fathom.

Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong is known to have followed the most sophisticated doping program the world of sport has seen.

Lance Armstrong of the US is known to have followed the most sophisticated doping program in sports. (Reuters)
Lance Armstrong of the US is known to have followed the most sophisticated doping program in sports. (Reuters)

1.Performance enhancing drugs are broadly classified into the following:

2.Stimulants: It Makes athletes more alert and mask fatigue

3. Anabolic agents: That is steroids, it helps athletes train harder and build muscle

4. Diuretics: Remove fluid from the body, and to reduce weight. Also used to hide other drugs.

5. Narcotic analgesics: Mask pain caused by injury or fatigue

6. Peptides and hormones: EPO (Erythropoietin) red blood cells and HGH (Human Growth Hormone)

According to the US Anti Doping Agency’s 2012 report, Armstrong used the hormone Erythropoietin (or EPO) to boost red cell production and oxygen intake. When blood and urine tests to detect EPO became more accurate, he switched to blood transfusions. He also used human growth hormone as well as testosterone and cortisone, both steroid hormones that help in protein synthesis, pain relief, and in recovery. Cyclists have also been known to take testosterone through gels. These are essentially like the pain relief gels that is available over the counter, but infused with testosterone. It seeps in through the pores in the skin to get into the system. Testosterone gel are also applied with Olive oil during massages as it to bypasses the liver, and thereby unlikely to be detected through urine tests.

There was a reason why EPO was the most preferred mode of cheating by cyclists and athletes in general. It simply couldn’t be meaningfully detected before 2001, and tests to detect blood doping and human growth hormone (HGH) wasn’t in place before 2005. Direct injections of EPO also helped avoid metabolization into the urine. In fact, there is still no standard threshold to conclusively determine evidence of blood doping from tests alone so long as an athlete uses his or her own blood.

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