Performance Enhancing Drugs in the Olympic Games

By: Amna Jamshad

Performance enhancing drugs date back to the ancient Olympics, during which athletes would consume products such as caffeine rich drinks, brandy, and exotic meats in order to boost their performances. Some historians suggest men competing in the ancient games were forced to compete nude in order ensure male only participation. Moreover, cheating in the games was rare and highly dishonorable – a philosophy that has persisted through modern day Olympic games.

The death of Knud Enemark Jensen, a Danish cyclist who died during a race in the 1960 Rome games, was attributed to traces of amphetamine in his system. Jensen’s case acted as the catalyst that forced the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to act against the use of performance enhancing substances.

Photo credit: Mike_fleming / Foter / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: Mike_fleming / Foter / CC BY-SA

The IOC’s list of prohibited substances was subsequently established in 1967; the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble and Summer Games in Mexico were the first to have their athletes drug tested. Most drug tests were introduced and in use by 1970, but there remained two areas where the IOC lacked testing: anabolic steroids and blood doping.

Use of anabolic steroids had become widespread in many strength-based athletic events. It took several years before a test was developed which would officially allow steroids to be placed on prohibited substances list in 1974. Their addition not only disqualified many athletes, but also lead to a drop in the top records in several sports.

Unlike steroids, blood doping is on the prohibited substances list, yet remains difficult to test. Technology for detecting blood doping, is not yet reliable. Blood doping refers to techniques used to increase an individual’s oxygen carrying capacity, which in turn improves athletic performance. This technique involves drawing ones blood and preserving it for several months leading up to the competition. This allows the body enough time to replenish its red blood cell supply, at which time the individual re-injects the stored blood back into their body. As a result, this increased red blood cell count renders this individual a superior response to greater oxygen demand upon exertion. This reduces fatigue and allows the muscles to work for longer periods.

Blood doping has several possible side effects. Adding too many red blood cells can decrease blood viscosity, making it more difficult for the heart to circulate blood. This greatly increases the possibility of developing a blood clot and having a stroke.

The recent 2014 Sochi games have set the record for the most drugs tests conducted during an Olympic competition. Winter games generally do not have many issues with performance enhancing drugs, but with pressure from the Russian government to remain scandal free, the IOC carried out more than 2,453 tests, which included 1,269 pre-game controls. Two thirds of athletes were tested at least once and many more were tested three to four times. Implemented through blood tests, the majority of the controls focused on events such as cross-country skiing, the biathlon, and other endurance events with established histories of substance abuse.

During the Olympics, analysts can test athletes at any time and in any place, including training sites around the world. The top five competitors in each medal event are tested in addition to athletes tested at random. As per IOC reports, there have only been twenty cases of performance enhancing drug use in the Winter Olympics since 1968. Only one individual tested positive in the Vancouver 2010 games, but two tested positive in the Sochi 2014 games. A German biathlete and an Italian bobsledder were sent home after their samples tested positive for methylhexanamine, an IOC prohibited stimulant.

Blood and urine samples collected from athletes are frozen and stored in Lausanne, Switzerland for retroactive testing. As new testing methods and technologies become available, the samples may be retested. The long term testing techniques serve to discourage athletes from using performance-enhancing drugs. If ever a discrepancy in results occurs, the samples can provide valuable evidence. In 2016, the storage period for the retroactive samples changes from 8 to 10 years.

First introduced in the 1960s, drug-testing technology has advanced rapidly. The precise and accurate testing techniques have taken a step further to insure fair competition. In future Olympic Games we can expect that athletes will go through rigorous drug testing to ensure that each gold medal is earned solely through hard work and dedication.