Shadow of glory: the evolution of the global anti-doping regime

From 26th February to 1st March, 2020, I was working in Berlin as an volunteer for the UCI Track Cycling World Championships. It was a huge pleasure for me meet my warm-hearted colleagues and the dedicated athletes from all over the world and moreover, it has aroused my curiosity to an essential part of modern sports events to which I did not pay enough attention before taking up a position in it: the anti-doping regime.

It has been a long struggle between the desire to win and the spirit of fair play throughout the history of sports events. As in modern times, even though they swore an oath to the fairness in competition, ancient athletes sought out every advantage, legal or illegal, in order to win. According to FIFA, the practice of using artificial means to enhance performance is as old as competitive sport itself. The ancient Greek athletes may have been the first to attempt this by using special diets and stimulating potions to fortify themselves for athletic performance.

In the early stages of modern Olympics, when sports events were merely considered as a side show to the much bigger World Fair and usually poorly organized, the use of performance-enhancing drugs was almost as crude as its ancient predecessors. Strychnine is a powerful stimulant of motor neurons, those that control muscle contractions, and it was massively abused during those times. For example, the winner of the marathon at the 1904 Games, Thomas Hicks, was given strychnine and brandy by his coach, even during the race. He almost died after crossing the finishing line, but he was never stripped of his medal.

By the 1920s it had become evident that restrictions regarding drug use in sports were needed, but such effort made by authorities were in vain as there was no appropriate method to test the athletes. After the Second World War, a flood of synthetic psychoactive drugs was observed in sports events. One of the most prominent is amphetamine, which had allegedly caused Knud Jensen, a Danish cyclist, to lose consciousness during the road race, and indirectly led to his death at the Rome games of 1960. Despite the disputes concerning the reports from autopsy, it has raised great awareness towards the endemic drug use. Another case associated with amphetamine is the death of Tom Simpson, the leader of the British team, who had taken amphetamine and alcohol, a diuretic combination which proved fatal when combined with the heat, the hard climb of the Ventoux and the stomach complaint at 1967 Tour de France.

In addition to strychnine, alcohol and amphetamine, recent decades also witnessed an enormous number of cases related to anabolic steroids. At the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won the 100 meters final, lowering his own world record to 9.79 seconds, but only three days later he was disqualified as an banned steroid had been found in his urine sample, even more shockingly, six of the eight finalists of the race tested positive for banned drugs or were implicated in a drug scandal at some point in their careers. Steroids were also prevailing in socialist countries, particularly in East Germany, whose government had embarked on a state-sponsored drug regimen to dramatically improve their competitiveness at the Olympic Games and other international sporting events. Girls as young as eleven were asked to take pills without consent from their parents, which have so serious physical side effects that many of the victims had to end their career prematurely and are still suffering from chronic ailments.  

By the mid–1960s, sports federations were starting to ban the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) followed suit in 1967. Nevertheless, it took the death of a few athletes to draw public attention to the problem of doping and to highlight the need for an independent international agency that would set unified standards for anti-doping work. After the mysterious death of the  American track and field athlete Florence Joyner in 1998, a foundation, known as The World Anti-Doping Agency(WADA) was created one year later through a collective initiative led by the IOC on 10 November 1999 in Switzerland, as a result of what was called the “Declaration of Lausanne”. Based on their criteria, a substance can be banned if it meets two of the three following criteria: 1. it has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance; 2. it represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete; 3. it violates the spirit of the sport. Unsurprisingly, steroids, growth hormones, substances that enhance red blood cell production or affect metabolism and a hand of stimulants are on the list.

After all, the fight against doping has been facing a lot of challenges nowadays. Every year, about 1 to 2 percent of blood or urine samples are tested positive by WADA for prohibited substances, but actual instances of doping are estimated to be significantly more widespread. Athletes can make physical gains in times when they’re not under much suspicion or would be unlikely to be tested at high frequency, and drug tests sometimes fail to catch up with the drugs themselves, i.e. the evolution of performance-enhancing chemicals. “As that pattern persists, you will continue to have people who are willing to take the risks to game the system.” Said Thomas Hildebrandt, a performance-enhancement researcher and associate professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

(Photo credits to: https://internetofbusiness.com)

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