HEIDELBERG, Germany — The moments a top athlete spends in the field represent the tip of an iceberg of physical training, mental preparation, and in many cases, clandestine drug taking.
From injecting their own stored and specially prepared blood back into their body to taking cutting-edge chemical compounds, athletes’ methods of “doping” are as varied as the methods of cheating the tests designed to catch them. In a new study looking behind the curtains at the pinnacle of sport, researchers find that, for many pros, getting away with using banned substances seems to be just one more aspect of the competition — and is happening more frequently than fans are led to believe.
In an anonymous survey of athletes at the multi-sport 13th IAAF World Championships in Athletics and the 12th quadrennial Pan Arab Games, the researchers found 30-45 percent of participants said they used banned substances or methods, compared to the 1-3 percent detected by biological tests.
“These findings suggest that biological testing greatly underestimates the true prevalence of doping in elite athletics,” says study author Harrison Pope of Harvard Medical School in a press release. “It indicates the need for future studies of the prevalence of doping in athletics using randomized response techniques to protect the anonymity of the athletes.”
The study’s other lead author, Rolf Ulrich of the University of Tübingen, notes the recent spate of high profile doping scandals means the results aren’t exactly surprising.
“Given the numerous recent highly publicized doping scandals in major sports, one might guess that the proportion of such undetected cheats is high,” says Ulrich.
The study’s figures show a top end estimate of dopers that’s even higher than that given by the World Anti-Doping Agency in a study earlier this year.
While Pope and Ulrich note that performance enhancing drugs and supplements often pose a danger to athletes, others have argued that it can level the playing field, and in some cases be beneficial to athletes health.
“Doping is not against the spirit of sport,” Julian Savulescu of the Oxford Centre of Neuroethics says in the Wired Magazine article. “It has always part of the human spirit to use knowledge to make oneself better and doping has been a part of sport since its beginning. Doping should only be banned when it is significantly harmful relative to the inherent risks of sport, or against the spirit of a particular sport. For example, drugs to reduce tremor like beta blockers in archery or shooting are against the spirit of that sport as it is inherently a test of ability to control nerves. Drugs which removed fear in boxing would be against the spirit of boxing. But blood doping up to a haematocrit [percentage of red blood cells in blood] of 50 percent is safe and not against the spirit of cycling.”
Commentators have often noted that levels of hormones, such as testosterone, vary individual to individual and some drugs are beneficial to professional sports. Nevertheless, while the most common doping substances, such as steroids, can aid in recovery and extend athletes’ careers, they also usually pose significant health risks.
The researchers noted that one of the main points of their study was that the true prevalence of doping remains unknown.
The latest study by Ulrich, Pope, and their colleagues was published in an article in the journal Sports Medicine.