The fast-approaching Olympic Games commencing in Rio this August has already received its fair share of controversy. An outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil has brought the whole event into contention, with calls being made for the games to be moved due to potential global health threats. As hundreds of thousands of people from around the world are expected to be in attendance, the World Health Organisation has taken heed in its assessment of the risks at hand.
However, in the midst of all the civil tension, it seems that a problem originating outside the country will pose the greatest threat to the competition – doping.
Last month, The New York Times published a revealing article about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Allegations were made against the Russian Olympic team, as a detailed report about a state-run doping programme surfaced. 15 medal-winning athletes had allegedly been involved, as the former director of the programme, Grigory Rodchenkov, who was then in charge, told the paper that a concoction of banned drugs was supplied to athletes as part of an elaborate process designed to give the Russians a competitive edge over their rivals.
According to Rodchenkov, the performance enhancing drugs administered to athletes included a mix of three anabolic steroids: metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone. Anabolic refers to the anabolism phase of our metabolism, in which simple substances are converted into complex compounds to build up the body.
On 17 June, a decision will be made by the International Association of Athletics Federations as to whether the Russians should be allowed to compete in August. But as the date approaches, confusion mounts. Journalist Steven Kotler recently appeared in a video for the YouTube channel Big Think to present a compelling case; he suggested that steroids may not be so bad after all.
In light of the Russian scandal and a general awareness of the way steroids have been tucked away in society, what are we to make of the substances and the confusion that surrounds them?
What are performance enhancing drugs?
To understand the heart of the debate, it’s important to understand the subject in question. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is currently the organisation that issues the list of substances that banned from being used in sport.
On its list, are substances that range from anabolic steroids and hormones (such as Human Growth Hormone), to Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1), diuretics and stimulants. Anabolic steroids, such as the metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone purportedly used in the Russian operation, are synthetic substances designed to mimic the effects of testosterone in the body – a hormone which in the form of a steroid boosts the size and mass of muscle.
It’s important to note that many of these steroids and hormones are endogenous – each and every one of us produces testosterone, human growth hormone and IGF-1. Therefore the purpose in taking the performance enhancers is to boost the amounts of these hormones to levels that would otherwise be unachievable via naturally orchestrated production.
Rodchenkov reinforces this, by explaining how these substances allow athletes to work much harder when they train and compete, as they reduce recovery time and effectively put each individual using them in a position of peak performance.
The case for using performance enhancing drugs
The well-researched advantages provided by performance enhancing drugs have made it clear that on a platform where everyone should be on a level playing-field, substances providing an unfair advantage should be banned. Unless a competition is conceived in which substance-based enhancers are permitted, it is clear that their use is complicit in cheating. What has been less clear, however, is whether the drugs are necessarily bad for one’s health.
One of the main reasons these drugs have been banned is because of an assumption that their use can lead to long-lasting ailments. But according to Kotler, steroids that have been linked to various diseases have been done so irresponsibly. An example cited by Kotler is a commonly associated link between steroid use and liver cancer; what he found was that studies making the link between the two didn’t account for a particular coating wrapped around steroids to help it on its way into the bloodstream. The culprit was the coating.
Kotler has said that steroids should occupy a place outside of the sporting realm, not necessarily for accessory reasons such as performance enhancement, but because failure to employ them could imply negligence in our combating of epidemic disease.
Through his funded research, Kotler claims to have found benefits in steroid use against AIDS. He looked into the treatment of AIDS by a doctor named Walter Jekot, who was initially derided and sent to prison for his steroid-based treatments. The positive effect steroids have in the development of lean muscle means that they are effective in the prevention of weight loss associated with AIDS and HIV. Given the devastating impact AIDS has had, there seem to be fatal consequences in not using steroids for remedial purposes.
The case against using performance enhancing drugs
Despite the body of work espoused by Kotler in support of steroid use, plenty of caution must be taken. The misuse and abuse of steroids carries with it well-documented side-effects of great severity.
Prolonged use could lead to osteoporosis and the expansion of cardiac muscle, which could lead to huge issues with heart problems and an increased risk of hypertension linked to steroid-induced heart attacks. In men it could lead to erectile dysfunction, increased risk of prostate cancer and infertility. Meanwhile in women, misuse could result in menstrual problems, hair loss and the deepening of the voice.
Further work must be done to understand what impact steroids can have on the body in regulated doses. In a competitive environment in which athletes are vying for glory, anything that may give the slightest advantage will be seductive. The taboo of steroids may be something that is slowly lifted if continued research can demonstrate beneficial effects in fighting back a range of illnesses and diseases.
But when it comes to the use of performance enhancing drugs in the competitive realm, it seems that a whole lot of restructuring and reformatting would be needed to accommodate for them. The desire to achieve superhuman levels of performance is one that has extended throughout history, and until a space or competition is created in which safe dosages of steroids and other enhancers are determined by a governing body, it is extremely likely that we will continue to see cases of abuse, cheating and health damage.
The verdict on Russia’s presence or absence at this year’s Games remains to be seen. Continued misunderstanding about steroids blurs the lines around where on earth they should be placed; it then seems likely that the quest embarked upon by athletes to the coveted medals of this summer’s Games will serve up further controversy.