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Athletes Look For Doping Edge, Despite Tests And Risks

An analyst works in the Olympic anti-doping laboratory in January.  The lab in Harlow, England will test 5,000 of the 10,490 athletes' samples from the London 2012 Games.
Oli Scarff
Getty Images
An analyst works in the Olympic anti-doping laboratory in January. The lab in Harlow, England will test 5,000 of the 10,490 athletes' samples from the London 2012 Games.

Last weekend Debbie Dunn, a U.S. sprinter set to compete in the London Olympics, resigned from the team after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

And as the games draw closer, we expect to see more reports of elite athletes who have turned to prohibited substances in their search for stronger, faster, and leaner body.

A positive test for performance-enhancing drugs can ruin athletes' careers. And prolonged use of steroids, for instance, can cause lasting damage. So why do many athletes still take the risk?

The science behind these drugs was the topic of a recent briefing by the Endocrine Society, a professional group for endocrinologists. While these drugs might provide a boost, doctors say the risks outweigh the benefits. And it turns out that elite athletes might not be the ones who have the most to lose.

"The story of [steroid] abuse by athletes is a fascinating story. It's a quest for immortality in some ways," says Dr. Shalender Bhasin, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine.

Anabolic steroids, introduced to the U.S. in the 1950s as Dianabol, are the most common drugs associated with enhancing athletic performance, says Bhasin. Derived from the male sex hormone testosterone, anabolic steroids flood the body with a pumped-up variation on testosterone's natural muscle-building potential.

Big, bulky muscles resulting from steroid use can be an advantage in power sports like weightlifting, but why would baseball players and endurance cyclists be taking these drugs? There's evidence that steroids can allow for more intense workouts, while improving oxygen delivery and decreasing reaction time, says Bhasin.

However, these benefits don't come without a cost. The heart, liver, and other organs are strained as the body processes these drugs, says Bhasin, and mood and behavior disorders cause an increased risk of accessory drug use and suicidal and homicidal tendencies.

And elite athletes, like Olympians and those on professional teams, only make up a small percentage of steroid users, the majority of whom are recreational bodybuilders.

"Elite athletes might use [steroids] for three months a year in the off season, then recreational users use them all the time for 30 years, thinking they are doing the same thing, but it's more dangerous," says Bhasin. For this reason, Bhasin says that anabolic steroid abuse is a public health issue that governments should be more invested in.

Unlike the storied use of steroids in athletics, a synthetic version of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which is naturally produced in the pituitary gland, is a newer member in the growing market of performance-enhancing drugs. Once only obtained from other primates, new DNA cloning technologies have led to increased availability of synthetic HGH and its use in the athletic community, says Dr. Alan Rogol, an emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia.

HGH builds muscle mass, like anabolic steroids, but it also differs. "It's ergogenic, which means it is like the energy built up in a spring," says Rogol. "It's also lipolytic, so it burns fat and makes you look ripped,"

But Rogol says that these hormone-induced bigger muscles are weaker, and might not lead to superior athletic performance. "Elderly men have been given this material and they can't usually lift much more weight [than before]," he says. And side effects for the expensive hormone range from heart failure and muscle disease to diabetes and bone problems.

Erythropoietin (EPO), a performance-enhancing drug made infamous by Tour de France cyclists, uses the body's natural system to boost red blood cell production. An increased number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells allows the doping athlete to raise his or her workout intensity and endurance. However, an athlete with too many red blood cells also has an increased risk of blood clots and stroke.

Though screening techniques for these and other performance-enhancing drugs have improved, many doping athletes will probably pass through the 2012 Olympics without being caught.

Rogol says that tests can only look for certain known chemicals, and many times can only test for drug use within the past 24 to 48 hours. Also, only 5,000 of the 10,490 athletes at the games will even be screened for performance-enhancing drug use.

So enjoy watching the Olympics this summer, but it's OK to view the amazing feats of athleticism with some healthy skepticism.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Stoller-Conrad