With the Rio olympics underway, the eyes of the world are watching and with a great focus on Russia. Many athletes have been concerned about the Zika risk, some so much so that they have pulled out of the competition; yet now to add to their stress, the Russians have been discovered to be doping across the sports, casting a dark shadow on the world of sport.
The cheating was uncovered at the Sochi games in 2014 but there is evidence going back to 2011 of doping, which was organised by the Russian government who have an insider to swap the ‘dirty’ samples for clean samples.
This is a scandal that has been well publicised but what actually are performance enhancing drugs?
They are commonly used drugs in sport and include anabolic steroids. The steroid structure is identified by its connected 4 ring (3 six membered rings and 1 five membered) non-conjugated system and has high prevalence in human hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone. It is the latter that is mimicked by anabolic steroids to increase muscle growth, endurance and recovery time. However, adding any hormone to the body can have negative effects and with testosterone these are especially noticeable in women who have less natural testosterone than men. Symptoms include deepening of the voice and facial hair as seen in males at puberty as their testosterone levels rise. Males however do not escape side effects and suffer from breast tissue growth, impotence and most severely in both sexes: liver damage.
This first pass metabolism is by-passed with intravenous injections as the substance enters the bloodstream immediately upon administration before reaching the liver. A common example of this in sport is blood doping. This involves a blood transfusion of the athlete whose blood is abstracted and the red blood cell count increased before being reintroduced to the ‘patient’. With more red blood cells, more oxygen can be carried in the bloodstream. The increased oxygen can be delivered to muscles to increase endurance and aerobic capacity. Another method of blood doping, made infamous by cyclist Lance Armstrong, is using a steroid called erythropoietin (EPO). EPO is present in the body and acts as a signalling molecule for the production of red blood cell precursors in the bone marrow. Increasing EPO concentrations increases natural red blood cell production, again increasing the amount of oxygen carried by the body. Risks associated with blood doping include blood clotting and strokes due to the increased number of red blood cells which could coagulate.
Other commonly used performance enhancing drugs belong to the class of stimulants. These include amphetamines such as ephedrine and epinephrine which mimic adrenaline. These drugs can cause issues as athletes can’t take over-the-counter cold remedies as they often contain pseudoephedrine an isomer of ephedrine but with much less stimulant effects. Stimulants are taken to reduce fatigue and increase alertness, alike to common caffeine and the risks include heart palpitations and addiction for long term use.
The Russian government were giving the athletes a cocktail of drugs which could be any of the above or a combination of other drugs such as diuretics and narcotics. A blanket ban supported by many athletes from other countries, as this scandal has brought shame upon Olympic sports, has been overruled by the International Olympic Committee. Instead of punishing all Russian competitors, only the athletes who have never been caught using drugs previously or in the current tests can compete.
It begs the question, instead of constant testing and monitoring of the athletes, why not let them dope? If they’re going to do it anyway why not let them and make sport all about who can get their hands on the best drugs? Obviously this isn’t how sport should be, as all training and natural talent is brushed under the doormat. The ethics aren’t the only problem as many doping drugs have dangerous side effects which the Russian government must have realised but disregarded. So, is winning really more important than a sportspersons health?