The Lasting Effects of Performance Enhancing Drugs: What does this mean for sport?

October 24, 2014

Uncategorized

By Brittany Corwin – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student

In 2013, University of Oslo’s Professor of Physiology, Kristian Gundersen, and his team of scientists found that athletes’ muscles can retain the performance-enhancing benefit of anabolic steroids well after the athlete has actually taken the steroids.

Gundersen’s team studied the effects of steroids on mice, saying that the same mechanism is at work in human muscles and that other performance-enhancing drugs would have similar long-term benefits. He recently explained to the BBC that when a person takes anabolic steroids, they develop more nuclei within muscle cells that allow the muscle cells to grow bigger and stronger when trained. If steroids are taken away, muscle mass will be lost but the nuclei will remain inside the muscle fibers and it will be much easier to return to the same strength after a period of not training.

Effective January 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code, will double the doping ban to four years for athletes found guilty of doping. This will be an increase from the previous two-year ban for a first major offence, with athletes banned for life if tested positive again.

If performance-enhancing drugs have lasting effects, this invites the question of whether the new four-year ban is really enough? Regardless of whether or not the athlete is now clean, an unfair advantage may persist for the rest of their athletic career even though subsequent testing will come back negative.

The BBC piece comes in response to the past summer in which US track and field athlete, Justin Gatlin, ran the fastest ever 100 meter and 200 meter times by a man in his thirties. Not to mention that out of seven 100 meter races in the summer, Gatlin held six of the fasted times and he ran the fasted ever one-day sprint double consisting of the 100 meter race and then the 200 meter race an hour later. These results came after Gatlin served two suspensions for testing positive for doping – the most recent being for four years in 2006.

These extremely fast finishes were subject of great controversy for fellow athletes. Britain’s 2011 400 meter hurdles world champion, Dai Greene, told BBC that “He’s [Gatlin] over the hill as far as sprinting is concerned – he should never be running these times .…” Greene further went on to say that since Gatlin had to sit on the sidelines, unable to train or compete during his suspension, there has to be some other explanation for his incredibly fast times at his age. He suggests that either Gatlin is still doping or the drugs he did take are still hard at work.

As a previous positive doper, Gatlin’s recent success upon his return to the sport could arguably be a direct result of his past doping, as Greene suggested. If this is the case, this leads one to wonder whether the world of sport can truly ever be clean if previous dopers are still reaping the benefits of their previous drug use.

If the benefits of doping are life long, then whether WADA instills a four-year ban, or a 10-year ban for doping, is irrelevant. Sure, a four-year ban to an athlete may seen like a lifetime, but how can the fairness of sport be upheld if regardless of their punishment, athletes are returning from their doping bans with an advantage over those athletes who have never doped?

According to their website, WADA “…was founded with the aim of bringing consistency to anti-doping policies and regulations within sport organization and governments right across the world.” In order to uphold their mandate, future research needs to be conducted into the long lasting effects of doping to address the extent to which the drugs have an effect on the athlete in the future and the impact it will have on sport in general.

These athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs are cheating and while they do receive penalties for this, as previously mentioned, their cheating should not allow them to later succeed as a clean athlete. It is possible that prior doping – for which they have already been sanctioned and suspended – could be contributing to current success due to the long-lasting effects of doping. In order to uphold the preventative measure of doping sanctions, the WADA Code needs to accommodate for any long-lasting effects of doping. Future research will hopefully help answer the difficult question of just how WADA is to do this.

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