It seems like hardly a day goes by without another sport icon being toppled from his or her pedestal because of allegations of use of performance enhancing drugs, most often anabolic steroids. No sport is immune from the ‘doping’ crisis, from baseball to track and field. In a report earlier this year, 1 in 10 retired NFL players surveyed reported use of anabolic steroids during their playing careers. Use of performance enhancing drugs by high school and college athletes has caused great concern to school and sport officials, and even the U.S. Congress has weighed in on the issue of ‘doping’ in professional sports.
The flurry of public and media interest in the use of performance enhancing drugs over the past several years can lead to the inaccurate assumption that this is a recent phenomenon. One school of thought is that the American obsession with winning at all costs, and the huge sums of money involved in professional sports is the root cause. A look at the history of drug use to boost performance, however, paints a different picture.
Given human nature, and the competitiveness of Homo sapiens as a species, it is quite likely that use of drugs to give an edge over competitors is as old as competitive sports.
One of the earliest documented cases of drugs to enhance performance was in 1807, when England’s Abraham Wood admitted using opium to win an endurance walking competition. The enhanced performance was so popular with fans it became a common practice and was used extensively not only in endurance walking but in long-distance bicycle racing.
In 1904, Thomas Hicks admitted injecting himself with strychnine in his quest to win the Olympic marathon. There was also widespread use of Benzedrine (an amphetamine) at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. There have never been any accusations that American runner Jesse Owens used performance enhancement drugs, but one has to wonder.
Anabolic steroids, the current drugs of choice for athletes, were identified and synthesized in the U.S. in the 1930s. Their use by American athletes began in earnest in 1954, after U.S. sports officials learned that ‘doping’ was commonly practiced by athletes from communist countries.
A backlash against ‘doping’ began when studies showed the harmful effects of such drugs on the bodies of young athletes. Opponents of the use of performance enhancing drugs have strong grounds for their opposition based on the harm that anabolic steroids can have on the still-developing bodies of young people. When they base that opposition on questions of them giving an unfair edge in competition, however, the argument is considerably weaker.
As long as we are obsessed with the goal of winning over striving, and we continue to develop equipment and procedures to give an athlete an edge and enhance performance to thrill fans, there will be those who see performance enhancement drugs as a quick path to glory. Fans who demand inhuman performance from athlete, and who idolize star performers, come off as hypocritical when they then denounce the athlete whose drug use is exposed.
There is probably no way to put this genie back into the bottle, but a good start would be to go back to the sports principle embodied in the saying, “it matters not whether you win or lose, just how you play the game.”
An excellent article on the pros and cons of use of anabolic steroids in sports can be found at:
The following websites offer details on the effect of performance enhancement drugs on the body,