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Drugs in Professional Sport

Drug use among professional athletes has once again been featured in the news recently with Alberto Salazar, Mo Farah's coach being accused of violating international doping laws and giving steroids to Farah's training partner Galen Rupp. The emergence of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999 has tighted the laws surrounding performance enhancing drugs, yet the use of substances to improve athletic performance has been reported as early as 1904 and the third modern Olympiad. Some infact argue that we will never completely eradicate the culture of doping in sports and that legalisation and regulation would make sports both safer and fairer as well as upping the level of sporting performance in all those involved in the competitive arena. A recent article in response to the allegations of Mo Farah's coach being involved in illegal doping asks why we should not simply allow performance enhancing drugs in sport1. The article argues that people mainly oppose drug use in sport due to safety risks and issues of fairness, yet that these two arguments are flawed in a number of ways. It is true that taking banned substances can lead to harm for the athletes, but would instances of harm not decrease if these performance enhancing substances were legalised, regulated and dispensed by top quality chemists? These chemists could perhaps push our athletes to the next level increasing their speed, strength and agility in order to improve sporting performance as whole, making for more exciting sporting competition? In addition to this, the article argues that perhaps being concerned with our sporting hero's safety is somewhat hypocritical as we have no problem watching them participate in sports that can and do regularly cause injury. One look at Muhammad Ali can show the devastating effects of too many punches to the head, yet we cheer our professional boxers on and the recent Mayweather v Pacquiao fight was the highest grossing sporting event in history. American Football players often end up with chronic injuries and are forced to retire early suffering from premature arthritis from the impact and punishment their body takes in training and games, yet the NFL is a multi-million dollar industry. Can we really argue that the health of our athletes is our main concern and are they not adults who can make their own informed choices? Many argue that there are instances of taking performance enhancing drugs due to the fact that the benefits of success are so great, yet the penalties for being caught cheating so minimal. Elite athletes can earn million of pounds not just from winning, but from subsequent sponsorship deals that flood in as a result of being at the top of your game, yet penalties for being caught are sometimes only a six or twelve month ban. The overwhelming argument for performance enhancing drugs staying illegal in sports comes down to fairness however and the fact that people should compete on a level playing field in order to determine the winner. But is there such thing as a level playing field? Before athletes even enter the track or pitch the outcome may have already been decided due to the level of resources available to the athlete or team. The technology, training, nutrition and latest ideas on fitness can all massively contribute to who wins and who loses in a sporting competition and is banning someone for using the latest chemical resources similar to banning someone for using the latest technology in running shoe or fitness training? Some people are more genetically pre-disposed to being athletic as in the case of Finnish skier Eero Maentyrants who in 1964 won 3 gold medals and was later found to naturally have 40-50% more red blood cells in his body than the average2. As red blood cells transport oxygen around the body to muscles and organs, this naturally led to an increase in athletic performance in comparison to other athletes and so was already at a natural genetic advantage. Erythropoietin (EPO) is a naturally occuring hormone that naturally stimulates red blood cell production and although EPO doping is possible, it is also possible to increase EPO levels naturally through altitude training or hypoxic air machines. Some argue there is no difference between elevating the blood count by altitude training or by taking EPO; yet taking EPO is illegal as it creates an unfair advantage. Nature is not fair however and some will always have the advantage such as the 7ft basketball players in comparison to the 6ft ones and so could peformance enhancing drugs actually level the playing field and remove genetic inequality? Performance enhancing drugs have been available as far back as over 100 years ago, and in over 100 years time, there are likely still going to be these types of substances available but what matters is how the sporting world deals with them. There are those who argue stricter policies are needed to ensure everyone competes free of performance enhancing substances and that the temptation is not there, yet others argue that perhaps legalisation and regulation is the way forward, allowing chemists to see how far they can increase the athletic performance of humans. This debate is likely to continue for many years to come but at the moment, performance enhancing drugs are illegal and so it will be interesting to follow the developments of those found guilty of using them to increase their sporting ability. 1- 2-