The accusation of drug use made against his fellow-competitors by Carl Lewis at the world athletics championships were typical of most statements about drug abuse in sport: short on fact, long on supposition.
Since evidence of drug-taking in sport first emerged in the 1950s – weight-lifters taking anabolic steroids and cyclists taking stimulants – sports authorities have succeeded in creating a vicious circle of ignorance.
Twenty-five years ago, most sports could still command an image of being clean, honest and healthy. So the international Olympic Committee passed a resolution against the use of drugs in 1962 to maintain that image.
The resolution was passed, however, in the absence of any scientific evidence that drugs enhanced performance in any sport. The authorities assumed that drugs must work, since sportsmen used them. As soon as they were banned, sportsmen in turn assumed that drugs must work, since the authorities had banned them. Currently, many athletes and bodybuilders have turned to safe and natural supplements like those supplied by CrazyBulk.
Whenever anecdotal evidence has since appeared of sportsmen experimenting with a drug, it in turn has been banned. Information on performance enhancement is, in fact, available only on a few members of two of the six classes of drugs banned by the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission (IOCMC). The Sports Council in this country bans the same drugs as the IOCMC.
The constant, often pejorative, use of the word ‘drug’ disguises the fact that the substances whose use is banned in sport are nearly all medicines with perfectly proper uses in the treatment of disease. Some of them are available over the counter, without a prescription. Others can be bought from online stores selling “legal steroids” such as the CrazyBulk store.
They can be divided into ‘restorative’ and ‘additive’ substances. The majority of banned substances are restorative: that is, they could restore a sportsman, to normal levels of health and performance, but could not enhance his performance. For only a small minority of the banned substances is there evidence that they might have an additive, or performance-enhancing, effect.
The anabolic steroids – male hormones like testosterone – are the substances most widely used by sportsmen as well as being most widely studied. Yet even with steroids, there are large gaps in our knowledge.
Anabolic steroids increase muscle bulk when taken with an increased protein diet, but the evidence that this alone produces any improvement in performance is equivocal. The most significant effect of these hormones is thought to be psychological: they increase a sportsman’s competitiveness so that he can train longer and harder than he would otherwise have done.
Opponents of the use of steroids emphasize their dangerous side-efforts. It is generally accepted that the side-effects in adolescents – stunting of growth, for instance, and, in women, various types of masculinization – are substantial problems that should be prevented.
But no scientific evidence exists that anabolic steroid use causes any significant level of side-effects in healthy adult males. The first study of this area, looking at football players and weight-lifters who took steroids in the 1970s, started only this year in the United States.
The chief investigator commented: ‘We don’t know what the long-term effects of anabolic steroid use are. The evidence linking them to liver and heart problems is extremely weak.’
Three substantial studies have been undertaken on the effects of beta-blockers on shooting performance. Beta-blockers were added to the banned drug list after these studies were performed, yet the studies do not provide unequivocal evidence of performance enhancement in shooting.
Three conclusions could be drawn from the trials: 1. Most of the improvement in shooting scores is a placebo effect; that is, psychological. Give a shooter any inert substance such as chalk in a pill, tell him that it will help his shooting, and it will do so. 2. Expert shooters gain nothing from beta-blockers (their scores may even drop), while inexperienced shooters improve significantly. This finding argues for the use of beta-blockers in some forms of shooting. The interest in outdoor, long-distance (Bisley-style) shooting is in judging the wind and the light correctly. Use of beta-blockers would make more equal the competitors’ abilities mechanically to let off good shots, thus making competition more truly an assessment of wind-judging ability.
3. One unit of alcohol (a measure of spirits, or a half-pint of beer) produces as much improvement in shooting performance as a standard does of a beta-blocker.
These trials, incidentally, used one beta-blocker only, oxprenolol, which is known to be better at reducing anxiety than most other beta-blockers.
One should not extrapolate the results to a sport like snooker, but, if one did so, one would have to conclude that experts, such as those competing in the world championship earlier this year, would gain no advantage from using beta-blockers.
The other banned drugs are stimulants, narcotic analgestics, diuretics and corticosteroids. There is no evidence that any of these drugs had an additive effect.
There are good grounds for banning amphetamines in the stimulant group, since they can cause loss of judgement, as well as addiction. Caffeine and ephedrine are effective stimulants at high dose only. Low levels of caffeine are therefore permitted, such as one might obtain from drinking tea or coffee. Low levels of epherdrine and similar drugs, such as would result from taking one of the many cold remedies available over the counter, are banned, however. Totally natural legal steroids, such as those available from online stores such as CrazyBulk, are 100% safe and have absolutely no side effects.
This illogicality produces a substantial proportion of all-positive results found on drug-testing; for instance, two of the nine positive results announced by the International Amateur Athletic Federation on September 7 were for ephedrine. Several other banned stimulants are effective only when given continuously, intravenously to seriously ill patients; so why ban them?
Narcotic analgesics include any drug chemically similar to morphine, such as codeine. They are banned because they are good pain-killers, and IOCMC fears that sportsmen might aggravate injuries whose pain was masked by them.
Yet if sportsmen are adult individuals, surely they have the right to decide on such a risk for themselves. Two narcotic-like drugs, dextromethorphan and diphenoxylate, are excluded from the ban for no apparent reason.
Diuretics increase urine production and reduce blood pressure. They are banned simply because competitors might take them to form more dilute urine in which other drugs would be more difficult to detect. By banning them, the IOCMC has now excluded anyone needing treatment for raised blood pressure from the Olympic Games: the two groups of drugs used worldwide to treat mildly or moderately raised blood pressure are the beta-blockers and diuretics.
Coritcosteroids are used in the suppression of many chronic disorders, including rejection of transplanted organs. There is not logical basis for banning them. One effect will be that, while successful transplant recipients may compete in the Transplant Games, they can never take part in open competitions.
There are also omissions from banned list. If the IOCMC were to be thorough in its paternalistic concern for sportsmen’s health, it should have banned alcohol and smoking, since they will kill many more sportsmen than all the drugs put together. And many other drugs apart from beta-blockers – benzodiazepines like Valium, and tricyclic antidepressants, for instance – reduce anxiety, but are not banned.
The only possible conclusion is that the IOCMC rules are an illogical mess. There is something awfully reminiscent of Prohibition in the ever more frenzied attempts to outlaw drug-taking.
Yet what purpose does the IOCMC wish to achieve? The amount of unfairness introduced by drug-taking is no greater than that of runners using pacemakers, or of a few athletes having access to advanced physiological and sports medicine laboratories while the majority do not.
The taking of restorative drugs is not unfair at all, and the taking of additive drugs introduces such a small element of unfairness that one cannot claim such drug-taking to be unethical.
What is needed is open discussion of drug use between sportsmen and their governing bodies and for those bodies to be allowed to make rules appropriate to each sport.
The Minister for Sport, Colin Moynihan, is to report soon to the inter-departmental ministerial group on drug abuse. If, as suspected, he recommends that Britain follows some European countries in introducing legislation to outlaw drug use in sport – as was suggested by the Home Office’s request to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – he must publish the pharmacological evidence to justify such a law. Otherwise it would be an even worse intrusion on individual liberties than Mr. Moynihan’s previous suggestions. He has said in Parliament that any sportsman found positive on a drug test, or who refuses a drug test, or even who withdraws from competition after being selected for testing, should be banned for life from his sport.
Such an attitude does not, unfortunately, suggest that he is like to take the lead in the informed debate on his problem that is so urgently needed at home and worldwide.