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In the following article, we will uncover the truth behind doping in sports and shed some light on why athletes dope in the first place. I’ll explain what doping is, cover common types of doping and performance-enhancing drugs, and I’ll give you some insight into what’s going on behind the scenes compared to what you hear in the media.
The general assumption is that doping is both unhealthy and unfair and so it makes sense banning it. We’ll get back to this issue a bit later. Let’s first look at some popular performance-enhancing drugs and their effects on the human body.
Testosterone, the principal male sex hormone, is an anabolic steroid that increases the body’s metabolism and muscle growth. So by injecting testosterone (or one of its many chemically modified derivates) your body regenerates quicker (so you can workout even more), you have less risk of an injury, and by holding water in your muscles, you become (as long as you keep injecting) stronger and bigger.
Doping tests cannot differentiate between natural and chemically synthesized testosterone. So one may think that by injecting pure testosterone one can trick the doping tests. Unfortunately, that’s not true since doping tests can indeed detect abnormally high levels of testosterone, but more importantly, they test for the relationship between testosterone and epitestosterone. If that coefficient is off, drug testers know that you injected testosterone.
So laboratories supporting athletes who dope are always out for modifying the chemical structure of natural testosterone without much limiting its anabolic effects. The results are often anabolic steroids that the mass spectrometer, which checks the athlete’s urine or blood samples against known steroid patterns, cannot detect.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
HGH is another naturally occurring anabolic steroid that athletes inject to recover quicker and to build quality muscles. Up until recently, drug tests could not detect HGH, so it became very popular among professional athletes. The downside of HGH is that it is very expensive to produce compared to testosterone. So taking HGH on a professional level could cost you (or your sponsors) thousands of dollars each month. Testosterone on the other hand only costs a couple of dollars, unless you’re a body builder and take excessive amounts of it.
EPO is very popular among endurance athletes since it increases the number of red blood cells in your bloodstream. As a result, your body can transport more oxygen from your heart to your muscles. Compared to anabolic steroids, such as testosterone or HGH, EPO has a higher risk factor if not used correctly. The issue is that if your red blood cell count gets too high, your blood thickens up and you risk not getting enough oxygen to where you need it. I’ve seen several athletes becoming unconscious during races because they did not get enough oxygen into their brains (caused by EPO). EPO is also quite expensive, compared to testosterone.
There are many other types of performance-enhancing drugs, depending on what sports you are in. For example, when it comes to having a steady hand, such as in shooting sports, Beta Blockers are very common but also other illegal substances, such as Marijuana.
Additionally, there are substances that are only banned if you take too much. The most popular example is probably caffeine, which can have a performance-enhancing effect. However, if you take too much, you not only risk getting banned if they catch you but more importantly, your performance will go down, you’ll become nervous, nauseous and probably get a headache.
Is doping dangerous?
Auroleus Phillipus Theostratus Bombastus von Hohenheim, immortalized as “Paracelsus” and sometimes called “the father of toxicology,” was the first to say, “It depends only upon the dose whether a poison is a poison or not. A lot kills; little cures.”
That also holds true for performance-enhancing drugs, cigarettes, a fatty diet, and alcohol. Having been a professional athlete for a couple of years, I’ve made the experience that the amount of performance-enhancing drugs many of your favorite athletes consume bears no significant risk to their health. However, I’ve also seen the negative consequences of drugs when consumed in high doses, especially by bodybuilders (both amateurs and pros) and in particular by those amateurs who self-medicate.
So bottom line: Drink, I mean consume, responsibly!
Why athletes dope?
Many people think that doping is a shortcut to better performance and thus success. That’s wrong. Most professional athletes have a mindset that allows them to reach the true limits of what their body can do. That’s something that most of us will never experience. Typically your brain tells you when you’re tired and should stop, even long before you reach your physical limits. It takes an enormous amount of willpower to overcome your mental limits.
So what if your mind is stronger than your body? Well, then you have to make your body stronger by significantly shortening recovery times and by lowering the risk of injury.
That’s where doping comes into the picture. By doping you can force your body to endure even more stress and exhaustion, so instead of working out “only” 7x a week, you can work out 13x a week. That’s a significant advantage but in no way a shortcut. It’s quite the opposite – it allows you to go the extra mile. You won’t get any stronger or better by doping and sitting on your couch in front of the TV, that I can promise you.
The most important reason, however, is money. The public, sponsors, trainers, etc. want to see records. Nobody gives a crap about Usain Bolt winning the 100m in 10.23sec – everyone wants to see a new world-record. With records come, sponsors, with sponsors comes money, with money you can afford being a professional athlete in the first place.
Sports is like any other profession – it’s all about money.
Is doping unfair to those athletes who don’t dope?
Athletes who dope have certainly an advantage over those who don’t. So it’s natural to conclude that those who dope are behaving un