The War on Drugs

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Scientists in Sweden have discovered that the effects of anabolic steroids linger long after their use is discontinued.

The BOA (British Olympic Association) confirmed they have rescinded their eligibility bye-law that was first introduced 20 years ago, banning athlete’s convicted of doping from Olympic events, paving the way for Dwain Chambers to race at the Olympics, 16 days from now.

Last month the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) ruled the BOA had to fall in line with WADA’s (The World Anti-Doping Agency) [1] policy on drug taking athletes.

Sir Steve Redgrave (vice president of the BOA) described the lifetime bans imposed by the BOA as “very tough” but said that two-year bans were not enough of a deterrent, being previously quoted as saying “a two-year ban for doping is almost saying it is acceptable”. He was however, in favour of giving people “second chances.”

The question is, should drug cheats be given “second chances”?

Once a cheat, always a cheat. A cliché you might say. But it does ring true. There is no way of guaranteeing athletes won’t abuse substances again especially given the spacing between major athletic events and the relatively short suspension time.

High-Profile Cases

Dwain Chambers and Justin Gatlin have both served drugs bans, but do they have the right to return?

Dwaine Chambers was introduced to THG as a specialised nutritional supplement. It was only after he tested positive for drugs that he made inquiries into its nature. When facing trial, Chambers’ defence argued that THG was not listed by the IAAF as prohibited. However, the UK athletics Disciplinary Committee which dealt with the case was satisfied that THG was ‘chemically or pharmacologically related’ to testosterone, a banned anabolic steroid.

Justin Gatlin, who recently returned with a stunning performance at the Diamond League meeting in Doha, beating Asafa Powell in the process with a time of 9.87 seconds, also tested positive for “testosterone or its precursor” back in July 2006. He denies knowingly taking the substance. Trevor Graham, his coach at the time, later admitted that Gatlin had been sabotaged and has subsequently been banned indefinitely from athletics.

In both of these cases there is an argument to allow both of these athletes to compete again. As far as we know, neither intentionally wanted to gain an unfair advantage. The message athletes and indeed coaches can take from this is, be vigilant.

It is a well-known fact that anabolic steroids such as testosterone are associated with gains in muscle mass and strength and resistance to fatigue beyond the normal range; it’s why athletes use them. Some research suggests muscles become bigger even without the training stimulus.

Of course, the long-term detrimental effects are also well documented. Andreas Krieger (born Heidi Krieger) being one of many high-profile victims of doping in the eighties. However, little research has investigated the long-term benefits of steroid abuse.

The Swedish Spanner

A medical dissertation contributed to Anders Eriksson (2006) [2] unearthed at UMEA University, Sweden proposes that “previous use of anabolic steroids may have advantages for the athlete many years after withdrawal”. This raises serious questions over suspension times for athletes convicted of doping.

They investigated the effects anabolic steroids have on muscle physiology. Three groups were analysed: elite trained power lifters; power lifters using steroids; and retired power lifters who had previously used steroids.

Astonishingly, they found that the muscle fibre cross-sectional areas in the retired power lifters who had previously taken steroids were comparable to current, elite power lifters that had no history of steroid abuse.

Numbers of myonuclei (centres for protein synthesis) in the trapezius (a large muscle of the upper back) were higher in the retired power lifters group. Meaning that compared to a normal non-exercising individual, they are producing more protein, a mechanism explaining their enlarged muscle cross-sectional area.

In the vastus lateralis (a large thigh muscle) more androgen receptors were found on these myonuclei. More receptors mean more stimulation and subsequently greater muscle growth.

Figure 1. A proposed schematic from Eriksson (2006) detailing the effects on muscle fibres from training, training combined with steroid use and withdrawal from training and steroids.

Figure 1. A proposed schematic from Eriksson (2006) detailing the effects on muscle fibres from training, training combined with steroid use and withdrawal from training and steroids.

The Consequences

For athletes such as Dwain Chambers and Justin Gatlin these findings are huge. Irrespective of their true intentions it remains possible that these athletes still have an unfair advantage over their rivals despite being “clean” for several years. It is difficult to determine how much of an advantage this gives them but at Olympic standard 1 per cent can mean the difference between gold and silver.

Excluding Gatlin from competition in particular would be a sensitive issue given the allegations of sabotage. Naturally he could claim damages, but unlike footballers nowadays, athletes are still poorly paid and don’t compete for the money.

As is the way with science, one paper is never enough to overthrow what is currently believed. It is however enough to spark debate. Whether the IOC and WADA are aware of these findings is unclear. If they have got wind of it, there is no doubt in my mind they are investing into proving or disproving these findings.

The Olympics has always been a showcase of political ideologies, movements and causes, simply for the exposure or “shop window effect”. In light of the continuing economic struggles, particularly in the Eurozone, will the likes of Greece, Spain and Portugal be looking to restore some national pride? Will they go to extreme lengths to show the rest of the world that things aren’t all that bad?

Only one thing is certain, the war is not yet won.


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[1] The WADA code can be downloaded from:

[2] Full text by Eriksson (2006) can be downloaded from: