Performance-enhancing drugs

A description of some of the different drugs that are banned in sport

Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, pictured winning the Tour de France in 2004
Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, pictured in 2004, won the Tour de France seven times from 1999 to 2005. In 2012 he was stripped of his titles and given a lifetime ban after it emerged that he used performance-enhancing drugs to achieve his success

The use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is currently one of the biggest issues in modern sport. Athletes such as Lance Armstrong and Justin Gatlin have both damaged the reputation and credibility of their respective sports. Athletes may choose to use illegal PEDs for different reasons and with varying risks.

Anabolic steroids - these illegal drugs have been widely used to cheat in sport over the past 50 years because they help the athlete to make rapid increases in strength and recovery from high intensity movements such as sprints. Steroids are typically used as a training drug. However, steroids are thought to cause severe mood swings when used in large quantities and may cause heart disease in some people. In males there is also the threat of testicular atrophy (shrinking testicles) and in females an increase in body and facial hair.

Growth hormone (GH) - this is a naturally occurring hormone that causes the body to grow but is also used by athletes as an anabolic agent to increase muscle growth.

Erythropoietin (EPO)/peptide hormones - this is a naturally occurring hormone that causes the body to make more red blood cells. Endurance athletes use these illegal supplements to significantly boost cardiovascular fitness. Until recently EPO has been very difficult to detect in tests and it is thought that hundreds of road cyclists avoided detection for EPO in the 1990s. Using EPO can increase blood pressure and can reduce the body’s natural capacity to make EPO.

Blood doping - this involves removing blood and then re-transfusing it a few weeks later after the lost red blood cells have been replaced. This method was infamously used by Lance Armstrong during the Tour de France. Cardiovascular fitness is enhanced in the short term but there is a serious risk of infections and illness as a result.

Diuretics - these cause the body to produce more urine. Some athletes use diuretics to mask the presence of other drugs such as anabolic steroids. The athletes who need to 'make a weight' such as a boxer or judo player may also be tempted to use a diuretic as it can cause rapid weight loss. However the method is illegal and can lead to severe dehydration.

Stimulants - substances such as caffeine can increase alertness and improve performance in games by reducing reaction time. Endurance athletes also like to use caffeine as it helps to better transport fat in the blood and decrease the impact of pain. However, caffeine can also cause diarrhoea and disrupt sleep patterns.

Beta blockers - these help a performer to keep calm and prevent the hands from shaking. Performers in target sports such as archery would stand to benefit most from these. These drugs are illegal in sport.

Narcotic analgesics - these are painkillers that are used to help an injured athlete continue to train and perform in big competitions despite their injury or allow an endurance athlete to tolerate a greater level of pain. This can be dangerous for an athlete as their injury may worsen by continuing to perform.

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