Post No.: 0115
Anabolic steroids, erythropoietin (EPO), human growth hormone (hGH) and the use of other banned substances in sport is dilemmatic in the sense that the cheaters, as in those who take them, often do get rewarded (despite some high-profile catches, who really knows how many highly-rewarded athletes, bodybuilders, etc. in history have never been caught and didn’t confess to their doping?) So on the one hand most people culturally agree that it’s cheating, immoral and illegal, but on the other hand cheaters can sometimes prosper. Getting away with it and winning isn’t right, but knowing that it has been or can be done just (further) incentivises the behaviour of cheating. Anti-doping regulators need to therefore get firmer in their enforcement, as indeed they are trying – there are more than enough people who care more about winning than being fair to rely on athlete self-regulation in this context. The punishments need to be severe enough to make the risks of cheating irrational rather than rational according to its expected value (i.e. the probability of getting caught if cheating multiplied by the punishment for cheating, must be clearly greater than the probability of escaping getting caught despite cheating multiplied by the rewards for cheating); albeit people hardly always behave rationally.
But an important question is where do we draw the line regarding what is categorised as doping? How about caffeine, creatine, laser eye surgery, cortisone injections or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)? What about fancy ice chambers or expensive body monitoring equipment? What about stimulant use in other contexts such as to improve school exam performance (nootropics)? Caffeine cognitively enhances alertness and therefore helps to give an advantage to users in intellectual tests too, and many students and workers of today have a dependency on it and believe they cannot confidently perform without it in their day.
According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), one of the 3 criteria for prohibiting a substance or method is that if it’s known to potentially risk harm to an athlete’s health. Genetic modifications are a tricky one – for most people at the moment, crops are one thing but modifying human beings is another. By the way here, we’re not talking about curing or treating medical problems – which most people have no problem with – but talking about enhancements to otherwise healthy competitors/people, whether in physical competitions or even intellectual or mental competitions. But there is a problem sometimes in determining whether someone genuinely has a medical problem or not e.g. asthma has different severities, and ‘therapeutic use exemptions’ (TUEs) are arguably frequently abused by athletes.
Out of interest, the other criteria are a substance or method does or has the potential to enhance performance in sport, and if a substance or method violates the spirit of sport (such as things that are used to try to mask an athlete’s doping, even if they’re not harmful or performance-enhancing in themselves) – at least 2 out of the 3 criteria must be met for a substance or method to be prohibited.
There is currently some dispute about the extent of the health risks of anabolic steroids and some other substance forms of doping – but they are still technically drugs in the sense that they aren’t essential micronutrients or macronutrients that a healthy person needs to specifically include in their diet or lifestyle in order to keep alive and stay healthy. If you don’t have a relevant medical problem then you don’t need them and the costs to your health if you nevertheless take them will likely outweigh their benefits in the long-term if they’re used in the long-term (all drugs have risks of at least some harmful side-effects). Alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, cocaine and heroin are worse in terms of their death and hospitalisation rates than anabolic steroid use, although it’s hard to get reliable data on the rates of use and rates of problems with various drugs because their rate of use is so underground or private, and it’d be unethical to conduct long-term lab experiments on random sets of humans. We need to take into account e.g. how many people take alcohol compared to anabolic steroids, too.
It could be the case that anabolic steroids are addictive – maybe not in a neurological brain chemistry sense, but maybe they also are? Regardless, because testosterone is correlated with taking greater risks and in turn a ‘win at any cost’ attitude, the more such androgens one takes, the more one will likely want to take more to competitively win, and the more one will likely cheat in other ways too to win at any cost and so forth.
One thing is for sure though – I wouldn’t want my own future kittens taking anabolic steroids if they don’t have a medical condition that requires them. I don’t think any temporary benefits to their lives will be worth the long-term health risks.
In the meantime, the World Anti-Doping Agency has implemented an ‘athlete biological passport’ system, which is pretty clever because it works to reveal any strangely sudden deviation in performance in an athlete hence it doesn’t matter what doping mechanism may have caused it (e.g. an unknown future substance that has no current test to directly detect it). Albeit one technique to potentially fool this system is to ever-so-gradually take the substance so that any improvements in one’s performance seems gradual and natural (micro-dosing). Athlete inspections are random though and an athlete must report where they are in the world every single day (or sometimes a few times per day) so that inspectors can find them if they want to take a urine or blood sample from them. And if anyone misses 3 appointments within a period of time then that’s considered a huge red flag.
In some competitions, all winners or medallists are tested straight after their events so if anyone wins anything then they’ll be definitely checked and then disqualified and banned for a period of time if found positive for doping (using two samples to cross-check test results to vastly reduce the chances of obtaining false positives). In other words, regulators (like in most fields/industries that have sufficient support and funding for their regulatory bodies) are fighting back and doing things in this cat-and-mouse game of trying to catch the doping cheats. But it’ll probably always be an endless game about strategies, counter-strategies, counter-counter-strategies, etc. because people won’t ever stop trying to find new ways to cheat if winning is highly rewarded by money, prestige and/or power. And this is true in any context (e.g. the financial sector, art world, political campaigns).