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The History Of Drug Abuse In Sports

By Razak Hj. Lajis
The Sun, July 20, 1996

YESTERDAY WAS THE OFFICIAL opening of the Centennial Olympics. Unfortunately, in this day and age, any major sporting event will have the shadow of drug abuse hanging over it. The Olympics is no exception.

Drug abuse among athletes is a problem as old as time. In certain instances, it may not even be the fault of the athlete, especially if the athlete prefers to self-medicate himself for minor illnesses. As some of these substances are readily available in the market, athletes are more prone to mishandling theser drugs.

For example, most cough and cold preparations contain minimal amounts of alcohol. Consequently, the abuser is unlikely to know what he or she has consumed. Therefore, athletes must take caution against taking such medications without proper instruction or they may end up watching the games as spectators.

However, there are athletes who purposely abuse drugs for a variety of reasons. These may range from improvement of performance to masking the presence of other drugs.

The use of drugs, especially the ergogenic or better known as permance-enhancing drugs, in sport is not new. Olympic athletes in ancient Greece were believed to have used herbs and mushromms in an attempt to improve their athletic performance.

Drug abuse has been reported since the Greeks started the Olympics in 776BC. It was then reported that certain substances were ingested by competitors in attempts to gain some ground against fellow competitors.

However, it was not until the early 19th century that the problem of drug abuse became a great menace to the sport.

There were incidents where death ensued following drug abuse. In the late 19th century, it was reported that French athletes drank a concoction of cocoa leaves and wine in order to reduce the sensation of fatigue and hunger. As a result, they were able to withstand strenuous forms of exercise and physical activity.

Perceived BenefitsPossible Risks
  • increase in power and strength
  • impaired judgement
  • increase in endurance
  • increase reaction time
  • increase in aggressiveness
  • impaired muscular coordination
  • increase in acceleration and speed
  • impaired balance
  • enhance concentration
  • impaired performance of complex activities
  • improvement of fine motor coordination
  • decreased strength and flexibility
  • decrease in anxiety, tremor and pain perception
  • decreased accleration and accuracy

The Winter Olympics held in Oslo in 1952 was marred by heavy usage of stimulants among some partcipating athletes. The abuse of anabolic steroids was first reported in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Many ergogenic substance are considered dangerous and may impose risks on those who take them. There are many established adverse effects of these agents. Among the most notable effects are on the reproductive system, liver function, metabolic impairment and psychological effects.

These drugs especially the anabolic steroids, interfere with the normal hormonal balance and feedback system.

Chronology of some sporting events describing drug abuse in sport
300BC Competitors disqualified from competing in the Olympics for ingesting mushrooms and animal protein.
1890s First report of drug-induced death in a sporting event.
1900 Concoction of strychnine and wine was used in sport.
1935 Prominent use of synthesise drug in modern era of sport.
1950s Drugs known as stimulants were used during the Winter Games in Oslo, Norway.
1960s Amphetamines were implicated in the death of several cyclists.  
1969 A Dutch athlete became the first track and field athlete to be barred from competing after he was found guilty of drug abuse.
1972 Anabolic steroid was banned from use during the Summer Olympics Games in Montreal, Canada.
1984 Several athletes including two world champions were banned after testing positive at the Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan.
1984 A runner was stripped off a silver medal in the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, The verdict: steroid abuse.
1986 A German athlete died in a hospital after experiencing a chronic hypersensitivity reaction to various ergogenic drugs.
1988 Ben Johnson was dethroned following a positive drugs test in his urine sample taken afyer his world-record breaking feat in the 100m.
1992 An European indoor champion was tested positive for steroids prior to the Barcelona Olympics.
1993 A world multiple cross country champion was suspended for refusing a drug test.
1995 64 weight-lifters were caught using illegal drugs. Most of the cases involved anabolic steroids and stimulants.
The number and variety of drugs use by athletes are rather alarming. Substances used as ergogenic aids are meant to primarily increase size, endurance and strength of the athletes. Some of the substances that have been identified and associated with drug abuse in sport are listed below:
Alcohol Lecithin
Amphetamines Magnesium
Anabolic steroids Nicotine
Aspartic acid Nitroglycerin
Bicarbonates Phosphates
Barbiturates Potassium
Caffeine Rauwolfia Serpentina
Digitalis Strychnine
Ephedrine Tranquilisers
Epinephrine Thiocyanate
Ether Veratrum Alkaloids

Sport has been promoted as an alternative to drug abuse, especially among the young. Ironically, instead, drug abuse has been perversely associated with success and glory in sport. The patriotic slogan that "what counts is not the winning but taking part" seems to have lost its vitality.

The glory of winning the gold and what will follow after that is more important than anything else. It acts as a strong driving force behind drug abuse in sports.

The main concern now is not just about the satisfaction of winning but the rewards for success. The rewards are staggering as the dollar volume being showered on "winners" is second to none. The figures have become so mind-boggling that the interests of people involved in this lucrative business is no longer centred around ethical and health-related concerns.

Drug-taking has corrupted the ideal of sports. The pressure of winning will make athletes do almost anything to find the extra bit that could make the difference. Many techniques are introduced and employed by athletes in order to gain that extra mileage in their respective fields. These methods are used to increase the effects of drugs and to avoid detection during drug tests.

The number and variety of drugs use by athletes are rather alarming. Substances used as ergogenic aids are meant to primarily increase size, endurance and strength of the athletes.

Drugs are illicity taken by athletes in an attempt to improve their performance. These drugs include beta-adrenoceptor blockers and beta-adrenoceptor agonists, calcium-channel blockers, diuretics, growth hormone and growth hormone stimulants, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, iron, theophylline and in some situations, vitamins.

Another form of ergogenic aid appears in the form of "blood doping." Whether or not his procedure actually works is still a matter of debate.

As early as the 1950s saw Olympic competitors using steroids. Anabolic steroids have been used by athletes for more than two decades in the belief that they can increase body mass, muscle tissue, strength and aggressiveness. This agent, together with amphetamines, have probably been the subject of media attention. They have probably caused more death than any other drugs used in sports.

In the 60s, anumber of cyclists died following the ingestion of amphetamines during competition. The most serious adverse effects that can occur with this sort of drugs are often associated with heart failure. All these ergogenic aids, when taken in excessive amounts, are not without some serious implications to health. Some may even prove fatal especially when used in moderately high doses by the athletes.

Sport seems to have lost count of the number of cases related to drug abuse. The athletes involved range from long-distance runners, weight-lifters, swimmers and soccer players.

Today, besides the world-record performances by athletes, reports of positive drug tests are almost part and parcel of any major sports event. There is a trend and a widespread belief that drugs enhance many aspects of sporting performance. Sport has again jumped into the limelight but for all the wrong reasons.

The main impact of drugs on athletic performance appears to be spychological. Many athletes feel more powerful. The misconception exists that these drugs enable them to train harder and increase their endurance so that they can train longer hours. This is despite facts that indicate the horrendous effects of such drugs.

Without proper regulation and commitment, athletes seeking a competitive edge may may resort to drug-taking to achieve fame and glory. The public should bear responsibility of making sure that young athletes continue to participate in sports without fearing any prematurely physical damage or even death form substance abuse in sport.

Social commitment and sports excellence must go hand in hand and not undermine one another. The emphasis should be on educating and motivating athletes, not to abuse drugs. It would be more encouraging if sport organisations are more consistent and logical their desicion-making. Otherwise sports will be reduced to a contest between drugs, money and politics.

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