Science can help an athlete break rules
Ancient Greek athletes were flogged to make them train harder. Now its all down to scientific planning.
As science begins to dominate sport, however, are we in danger of losing the raw physical challenge that is at the heart of competition? Science can help an athlete bend, or even break the rules. Genetic engineering may offer new performance enhancing drugs and therapies that will be undetectable. And do athletes from poorer countries stand any chance of competing on a level playing field when confronted by the high spending, hi-tech teams from the West?
The big problem for sports administrators is to find tests that are quick, cheap and accurate. As fast as scientists devise new tests, however, other scientists are devising new products that enhance performance. Tests for many substances do not measure for the banned drug itself but look for indications that it may have been used - for instance raised levels of hormones in the body. The problem is in deciding exactly what changes in the body indicate the use of a banned substance and how long the effects of a drug might last. Virtually all banned substances occur naturally in the body.
Once steroids were one of the most commonly used of all banned substances. They increase muscle growth but their effect on performance is controversial. The greatest effect occurs in women. If they take male steroid hormones like testosterone, they get definite advantages, but at great cost. Women athletes on steroids can find their voices deepening and grow facial hair.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
A naturally occurring chemical in the body, it is secreted by the pituitary gland. It appears to trim fat, build muscle and possibly slow down the ageing process. Unfortunately there is no reliable test. Australian customs officials discovered 13 vials of growth hormone hidden in the luggage of Chinese swimmer Yuan Yuan before the world championships in 1998.
Another controversial and naturally occurring hormone, its use increases the number of red cells in the blood. Testing is problematic since high levels of red blood cells might arise from training at altitude. A French developed urine test can detect synthetic EPO but is very expensive and complex. A new Australian test can detect raised numbers of young red cells. In the 1980s athletes commonly extracted large quantities of their own blood. This was stored and then re-injected after the body had replaced the lost cells. This meant that higher red cell levels could be achieved just before an event. This practice is now banned.
Currently a hugely controversial substance. It is an anabolic steroid. As it is broken down by the body, the products produced (metabolites) appear in the urine where they can be detected by testing. Three British athletes, including the gold medallist Linford Christie (now a coach), have tested positive for this and been suspended, but there is some evidence that increased levels of metabolites could be explained by rigorous training.
The rewards of winning gold are so great that it is difficult for athletes not to be tempted to take something that might enhance performance. Some have suggested that, if drug taking is inevitable, athletes should be allowed to take whatever they like. But drugs can seriously damage the long term health of athletes and if only some competitors are taking drugs, then competition is unfair. For the time being at least, regular random testing is the only means of controlling the problem.
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