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Drugs in Sport


What is a drug?

A drug is a chemical substance that, when absorbed into the body, can alter normal bodily function.   Many drugs have been banned in sport if they are deemed to provide an unfair advantage, pose a health risk, or are seen to violate the ‘spirit of sport’.  The use of banned drugs by athletes is referred to as ‘doping’.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC), and more recently, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have been leading the way in the battle against drugs in sport.


Why do some athletes use drugs?

Most athletes take drugs to enhance their physical performance in an attempt to prevent them falling behind other competitors, even if it does mean damaging their health and risking their sports careers.  Other athletes may use drugs to help them wind down and relax, to cope with the pressures and stress associated with a constant battle to win all the time, to boost their own self-esteem and confidence, to mask the pain of certain sports injuries, to control and reduce weight, and to hide the use of any other banned substances.


What types of drugs and methods are used by athletes to enhance performance?
Lean mass builders are used by athletes to increase the growth of muscle and lean body mass, to reduce recovery time after an injury, and are sometimes used to reduce body fat.  Examples of lean mass builders include anabolic steroids, beta-2 antagonists, and various human hormones (human growth hormone, hGH).  Stimulants are used by athletes to increase alertness, improve concentration, increase aggressiveness, decrease fatigue and shorten reaction time.  Painkillers are often used by athletes in order to mask the pain of an injury and so as they can continue to compete and perform beyond that of their normal pain threshold. The use of narcotics is banned in sports as they impair athlete’s judgment where dangerous situations can not be detected.  Relaxants are used in such sports as archery where a steady hand is required, and also by those athletes feeling excessive nervousness or discomfort which is hard to overcome.  Examples of relaxants often used include alcohol, beta-blockers and marijuana.   Diuretics are often used in sports such as wrestling where a certain weight restriction needs to be met, as they remove water from the athlete’s body.In many cases masking drugs are used by athletes in order to disguise the use and prevent the detection of illegal classes of drugs in sport.  One method of performance enhancement used by athletes is blood doping.  This involves removing red blood cells from the blood and replacing those weeks later to increase the overall number of red blood cells in the blood.  This increases the amount of oxygen that the body can therefore carry and is extremely beneficial in long distance running.


What are the side effects and risks associated with taking such drugs and using such methods?
Lean mass builders such as anabolic steroids can cause dangerous increases in levels of cholesterol, heart attack, hypertension, stroke, liver and kidney damage, jaundice, depression, aggression, mood swings, acne and skin disease, reduced sperm count and impotence in males, and amenorrhoea in females.  Beta-2 antagonists can cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, muscle cramps and heart flutters, whilst other lean mass builders such as the human growth hormone may be associated with Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease, liver problems, heart disease and irregularities in the processing of insulin.  Side effects of stimulants such as amphetamines include increased heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, stroke, hypertension, agitation, anxiety and sudden cardiac death.Strong prescription painkillers such as narcotics are also highly addictive and can impair mental abilities.  Relaxants such as alcohol and marijuana cause impaired judgement, balance, co-ordination and memory, hallucinations and drowsiness.  Side effects of diuretics include dehydration, dizziness, cramps, heart damage and kidney failure.  Those masking drugs used to prevent the detection of other banned substances can cause severe allergic reactions, nausea and vomiting.  The method of blood doping is dangerous as it causes the blood to thicken and can lead to hypertension, stroke, heart attack and sudden death.


How do the authorities test athletes for drug use?  
Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry are the most common methods of analysis and can be performed on both blood and urine samples.  In gas chromatography the sample is vaporised in a gas solvent and placed in a machine that dissolves each of the substances differently within a specified time.  The substance then comes out of the gas and is absorbed into a solid or a liquid which can therefore be analysed.  In mass spectrometry the sample is blown apart by an electron beam and each of the fragments are accelerated along a magnetic tube to a detector where they are analysed.  Another method used for drugs testing in athletes is immuno-assays, where the sample is mixed with a solution containing an antibody specific to that substance being tested on.  The antibody contains a fluorescent dye and this is measured in relation to the concentration of the substance.  


What are the consequences for athletes if they fail a drug's test?

Positive drugs tests results are usually reviewed by a panel of sports officials and athletes employed by the IOC.  If athletes do test positive on a drugs charge they are at risk of losing a set percentage of their competitive season, they will be allowed to practice within this specified time but are not eligible to compete.  If they test positive more than once they can be banned from competition for up to one year and may lose their scholarship, and some may even be banned from competition completely and are no longer able to participate in sport.  Some cases of drugs testing are disputed and this can lead to a hearing, arbitration and to courts at both national and international level.


What research is being carried out at Ulster?
The Sport and Exercise Sciences Research Institute within the University of Ulster aim to facilitate, co-ordinate and carry out high quality research, and promote a vibrant culture of research and scholarship with the university, health providers, government bodies and other centers of excellence.  The group encompasses several areas of research to include adolescent lifestyle and health, health benefits of physical activity, social sciences of sport, sport and exercise psychology, physiology and biomechanics, and sport technology.


Where can I find out more?


Contact details
If you have any questions about this topic, please contact: Dr. Eric Wallace, Ulster Sports Academy, at