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Performance enhancement in sports has taken on added importance during recent years as athletes try to gain an edge over opponents in an increasingly cutthroat sporting environment. In an effort to enhance their performance, athletes have turned to nutritional supplements, a variety of drugs, physiological agents, and even sports psychology.
The record of performance-enhancing drugs dates back to 400 BCE in Greece, when achievements in sports were first found to increase social status, political power, and economic well-being. Although the crown of olive leaves was the only “official prize” for an Olympic victory, records indicate that Olympic winners could gain great wealth from lucrative prizes awarded by their city-state. In addition to money, winners might receive homes, food, tax breaks, and even exemption from duty in the armed services. Because the stakes were high, athletes were open to any means that gave them the edge over opponents, such as ingesting mushroom extracts, plant seeds, or any concoction thought to enhance performance.
During the Roman period chariot races and gladiator competitions filled the stands with spectators. Knowing that a victory could be their ticket to social and economic prosperity, competitors fed their horses potent mixtures of herbs and other plants to make them run faster. They also fed themselves herbal substances that acted as doping agents to make for a more intense and bloody battle, one that would satisfy the adoring crowds.
Ancient games were ended during the Christian era in 396 CE when the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all forms of “pagan” sports. People were encouraged to develop their minds during this time. Because physical development was viewed as a hindrance to intellectual growth, the popularity of sports diminished and did not recover until the nineteenth century.
Media’s Influence on the Reemergence of Sports
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sports in North America became increasingly popular because of coverage by mass media such as newspapers and magazines, and spectator sports such as football and soccer attracted hundreds of thousands of fans. As more stadiums were built and international play increased, sports became more than just a frivolous activity to be played during free time. Instead, the professional athlete was born, and with the professional athlete, a life of fame and fortune.
During this time athletes began to use pain killers and stimulants to gain an edge over unsuspecting opponents. In 1886 cyclist Arthur Linton died from an overdose of the stimulant trimethyl during a race, the first recorded drug-related death in sports. Marathon runner Thomas Hicks nearly died during the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, after ingesting a mixture of brandy and strychnine, a drug used in “street” varieties such as LSD, heroin, and cocaine. Using a combination of alcohol and strychnine as a perceived performance enhancer was popular during the early twentieth century, along with heroin, caffeine, and cocaine, which were available without a prescription. During the 1930s amphetamines—stimulants that increase mental alertness, elevate mood, decrease the sense of fatigue, and produce a sense of euphoria—began to replace strychnine as the drug of choice.
Anabolic steroids were introduced during the 1950s. A synthetic form of the male sex hormone testosterone, anabolic steroids increase muscle mass, strength, and endurance capacity while facilitating in the recovery period after exhausting workouts or training sessions. In 1956 at the World Games in Moscow, U.S. doctor John B. Ziegler learned of steroids after watching Soviet athletes urinate using a catheter because their prostates had become so enlarged that urination was difficult. Overshadowing the negative side effects, Ziegler was more impressed as the Soviets shattered all of the weight-lifting records. When Ziegler returned to the United States, he helped a team of scientists develop the steroid dianabol, hoping to help U.S. athletes compete against the Soviets. Dianabol was immediately embraced by the athletic world, and use was widespread.
Because succeeding in sports had reached new proportions in terms of political, social, and economic power, athletes were largely unconcerned with side effects of steroids and instead considered them just another sacrifice in reaching the top.
Steroids—A State-Sponsored Affair
Some countries sponsored drug use as they strived for the international recognition that often accompanied achievement in individual and team sports. The former head of the East German sports federation, Manfred Ewald, and medical director Manfred Hoeppner gave what they called “vitamins” to unknowing athletes as young as eleven years old. The athletes later found that the “vitamins” were heavy doses of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. As a result, East Germany became a sports powerhouse during the 1970s and 1980s, but not without a price. The physical and psychological damage done to the more than ten thousand athletes who were systematically doped was horrific. The long-term medical effects of steroid use included increased aggression, testicular atrophy, masculinization in women, personality disorders, liver damage, and cardiovascular disease. Some of the athletes died prematurely. East German shot-putting champion Heidi Krieger eventually had a sex change because of the physical changes her body endured because of extensive drug use and now goes by the name “Andreas Krieger.” In July 2000 Ewald and Hoeppner each received suspended jail terms of one to twelve years.
The use of steroids continued to grow despite increasing evidence of harmful side effects and the sanctions put into place by sports authorities. Nineteen athletes (including two U.S. athletes) willing to risk their health and reputation to earn a place on the medals stand during the 1983 Pan-American Games were disqualified for steroid use. Five years later Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson—who raced to a world record finish in the 100-meter dash—was stripped of his Olympic gold metal in Seoul, South Korea, after testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol.
Athletes Turn to Supplements
In 1998 St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa of Major League Baseball broke New York Yankee Roger Maris’s home run record, a record that had stood for thirty-seven years. People later discovered that both players were using an over-the-counter supplement called “creatine,” a protein-based ergogenic aid that has been shown to increase strength and muscle mass. McGwire was also taking androstenedione, better known as “andro,” which is said to increase testosterone levels. McGwire’s home run record was challenged by opponents who said he did not earn the record without the help of a questionable substance, which is banned by the International Olympic Committee but not by Major League Baseball. After much debate officials resolved the issue by placing an asterisk next to his name in the record books, noting the use of supplements.
Sports Authorities Take a Stand
Although athletes today are well aware of the health risks of taking performance-enhancing drugs and supplements, many are willing to take those risks if the result is athletic success. During the late 1990s Dr. Robert Goldman surveyed 198 past and aspiring Olympians, asking them if they would take a banned drug with the guarantee that they would both win the competition and not get caught. Only three said they would not take the drug.
In 1968 the International Olympic Committee was the first sports organization to compile a banned substances list and began testing athletes after years of drug use suspicion. Many professional and international sports organizations followed suit by banning illegal substances so all athletes could compete fairly.
In June 2003 track coach Trevor Graham, who once trained Olympic sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, called the U.S. AntiDoping Agency (USADA) and told it that an anabolic steroid was being distributed to athletes by Victor Conte Jr., owner of Bay Area Laboratories Co-operative (BALCO) in San Francisco. Graham sent the agency a syringe of the clear liquid, which was identified by scientists as tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). Referred to as a “designer steroid” because it is synthetically created by chemical engineers, THG is a steroid that builds muscle mass and strength, allowing athletes to train harder for longer periods of time. Although not specifically banned at the time, THG was a derivative of other steroids that had been banned by the USADA. Although tests on possible side effects have been limited, the USADA has warned that THG can cause liver toxicity, excessive hair growth in women, and infertility and baldness in men, based on its similarities to other steroids. Although the athletes themselves were not under investigation, several Olympians, NFL players, MLB players, and even a professional boxer were subpoenaed to testify against BALCO, which was under investigation by federal authorities as to the source of numerous illegal performance-enhancing substances. Among those subpoenaed were Jones and Montgomery, Oakland Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski, and All-Star San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds.
Ephedrine—A Deadly Risk
Ephedrine, also known as “ephedra” or “ma huang,” is a stimulant that is often found in asthma medications and is structurally similar to amphetamines. Athletes began using ephedra in the form of pills or drinks during the early 1990s to lose weight and improve their athletic performance. In the sports world ephedra-containing products have been blamed for the death of several up-and-coming athletes. In July 2001 Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer collapsed during a training camp session and later died after taking an ephedra supplement prior to practice. A month later Northwestern University football player Rashidi Wheeler collapsed and died during a workout after drinking an ephedra-based sports drink before practice. In February 2003 Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed on the mound and died after taking an over-the-counter ephedrine supplement sold to boost energy and help in weight loss. Ephedra was banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), IOC, the National Football League, and minor league baseball, prior to a ban by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2004.
Human Growth Hormone
Athletes also have used human growth hormone (hGH) as a performance enhancer, largely because it was un-detectable by the International Olympic Committee until 2004. Produced by the pituitary gland, hGH was originally used to stimulate the growth of muscles and bones in children suffering from a deficiency of the hormone. Over time medical officials determined that hGH increases lean body mass and reduces fatty tissue, which was attractive to elite athletes. Some athletes also believe that hGH increases energy, a claim unsubstantiated by the limited research conducted on the hormone. Although it is expensive (reportedly in excess of $1,000 a unit on the black market), some elite athletes opted for the hormone because it was more difficult to detect than steroids. Marion Jones was accused by her ex-husband, Olympic shot putter C. J. Hunter, of using hGH, an allegation she repeatedly denied.
Blood Doping—Elite Athletes’ Newest Rage
Tempted by the lure of big contracts and lucrative endorsements, many athletes have also turned to blood doping. Athletes will donate their own blood months in advance, then receive a transfusion of their own blood prior to a major competition to increase the volume of red blood cells in their body. Studies have found that as little as one pint can increase the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity, resulting in increases in maximal oxygen uptake, time to exhaustion, and actual performance. This technique is particularly attractive to athletes in endurance sports such as marathon running or cycling. Blood doping can result in blood clotting or heart failure, challenging the popular credo of athletes that “more is better.”
Erythropoeitin (EPO), a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates red blood cell production, is reproduced in a synthetic form that can be injected by a syringe. EPO has been the blood doping method of choice in the cycling world since it was introduced if-teen years ago. Although dozens of elite cyclists have died from complications attributed to EPO, many continue to take the risks that they believe are necessary to win. In the 1998 Tour de France bicycle race the grueling competition was overshadowed by drug allegations surrounding EPO after officials found bottles and bloody syringes near a hotel where several teams were staying. Seven people were placed under investigation, one team was expelled, and six teams dropped out in protest. Some high-profile athletes claimed they used the hormone and never tested positive for it because the test is effective only if given within seventy-two hours of an injection.
At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, a new blood-boosting substance, darbepoetin, was discovered by drug testers. A drug similar to EPO, darbepoetin in its medical form is used to treat anemia and severe kidney problems. Athletes used darbepoetin because of its longer-lasting effects and because they falsely believed it is undetectable by drug testing.
Teens and Performance-Enhancing Drugs
Although the focus of illegal drug use tends to be on elite athletes, many athletes begin experimenting with performance-enhancing drugs during adolescence. Millions of athletes—both men and women—use steroids regularly, and the majority are in their late teens. Children as young as thirteen have been known to use steroids to enhance their performance at the high school level. No matter what the risk, teen athletes are even more likely to take performance-enhancing drugs and supplements as they strive to mimic their idols: Olympians and professional athletes who live lives of fame and fortune. Infrequent testing and peer pressure are additional factors contributing to teen use.
Sports Psychology—A Safer Avenue to Athletic Success
Sports psychology has been practiced since the turn of the twentieth century but has greatly increased in popularity during recent years. Sports psychology is a means by which athletes prepare their minds for competition, and successful implementation can give them a safe and legal edge over competitors. Ninety-five percent of athletes blame their mistakes during competitions on mental errors, although these same athletes say they prepare mentally for competition only about 5 percent of the total time they practice.
Norman Triplett conducted the first known sports psychology experiment in North America in 1897. Testing cyclists during racing conditions, he obtained results that indicated that paced bicycle races result in faster times than do individual efforts and that the presence of an audience enhances arousal levels of cyclists.
During the 1920s Coleman Griffith opened the first sports laboratory at the University of Illinois, conducting psychological research on the psychomotor skills of athletes, as well as their performance, personality, and motivation. Later he served as a sports psychologist for the Chicago Cubs. Interest in sports psychology plum-meted for decades, likely because of the Great Depression and World War II. Although sports psychology did not regain popularity until the 1960s, Griffith is often referred to as the “father of sports psychology.”
In 1967 the sports psychology movement began to make headway, highlighted by the first annual meeting of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA). Bruce Ogilvie, a leader in the advancement of applied sports psychology, began to work with athletes one-on-one, helping them to understand that their minds are just as important as their bodies when it comes to performance. Ogilvie worked as a consultant with multiple professional teams, including the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Athletics, Dallas Cowboys, Portland Trailblazers, and the U.S. Olympic Team. He was known for helping athletes make the necessary adjustments between collegiate and professional athletics as well as helping create facilitative team dynamics.
By the 1984 Olympic Games sports psychology consultants were working with U.S. athletes from the track and field, volleyball, weight lifting, skiing, synchronized swimming, fencing, cycling, archery, shooting, and boxing teams. However, a rule stipulated that none of the consultants could provide on-site services for the athletes during competition because none was credentialed by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). That rule was changed for the 1988 Olympic Games.
Sports psychologists, sometimes referred to as “head” coaches, work with athletes and teams on a variety of mental skills. Goal setting, self-talk, imagery, and relaxation are just a few of the techniques on which sports psychologists may focus to improve motivation, self-confidence, mental toughness, and concentration while decreasing stress and anxiety. Team dynamics can be an ongoing struggle, particularly among professional athletes because they rarely remain with the same team throughout their career. Job security in professional sports is nearly nonexistent, trades are commonplace, and retirement because of injury is frequent.
Fear of the Sports Psychologist
Although many athletes won’t think twice about trying a drug that could seriously harm them, those same athletes may be apprehensive about seeking help with their mental skills because they fear that their teammates will view them as weak or incompetent. This stigma has diminished slowly through the years, however, as more professional and elite athletes seek the help of sports psychology consultants.
The USOC has its own sports psychologist on staff. Most Olympic sports teams have their own sports psychology consultant as well. Sports psychology also is popular in Canada and many parts of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Professional, elite, and amateur athletes are increasingly seeking the help of sports psychology consultants as they realize the importance that mental skills play in achieving a peak performance.
Sports officials have faced an uphill battle in a quest for drug-free athletics. Although antidoping initiatives have reached an all-time high within the professional sports world, chemists are creating undetectable drugs faster than sports laboratories can create tests to detect them. Newer drugs mimic natural bodily processes and are becoming more difficult to detect. With the possibility of genetic enhancement (genetically stimulating muscle growth in athletes) in the years to come, detection and elimination of performance enhancement will become an even tougher challenge.
More and more athletes will explore the world of sports psychology in an effort to hone their mental skills.
However, if the current trend continues, they likely will do so in conjunction with performance-enhancing drugs, supplements, or physiological processes as they go for the gold.
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