Use of Drugs

Critical Question 3 – What ethical issues are related to improving performance?


Drug use in all sports is considered unethical and quite dangerous. The use of illicit substances can have long term, negative effects on the health of the athlete. Drug use also creates an unequal competitive environment as doping can provide athletes with a short-term and unfair advantage against their opponents.

So why do athletes risk their health, reputation and career by taking drugs?

Many athletes seek glory and some prioritise pursuit of success over their commitment to their health and wellbeing. The commercial aspect of sport in today’s society provides athletes with more incentive to seek the extrinsic rewards of money, fame, and sponsorship, which accompany victory. Some athletes are dissatisfied with their performance and don’t have the drive, resources or ability to improve. They may be encouraged, influenced or coerced into taking illegal substances.

In the world of professional sport, there is constant pressure on athletes to perform and win. Winning means sponsorship, which equals monetary gain. The public and media add to the expectation placed on athletes to compete and perform. This constant, underlying pressure to win can lead to athletes taking extreme measures and making poor choices to ensure their continued success.

Different drugs have different effects on the body and performance. Some, like anabolic steroids, are designed to build body mass, which appeals to athletes who need to develop muscle tissue and size. Other substances, for example EPO, increase the delivery of oxygen to the working muscles increasing endurance. There are also drugs, primarily diuretics, which can be used to mask the effect of other illicit substances designed to improve athletic performance.


The Dangers of Performance Enhancing Drugs

Using drugs to enhance performance may seem appealing to athletes in the short-term, however, there are long term consequences and repercussions, which will effect the athlete regardless of whether they are caught.

Physical effects
The use of illicit substances can lead to a number of serious physical and mental health issues including cancer, heart problems, stress anxiety and depression.

Loss of Reputation
Winners earn more than just a gold medal in the twenty-first century; elite athletes receive financial rewards, fame and sponsorship. Consequently, some athletes develop the mentality of ‘winning at all costs’.

If an athlete adopts this attitude and relies drug use and other unethical means to ensure their success, it can lead to a potential loss of reputation for the athlete, the sport and the country they represent. Just recently the Russian Athletic Team was banned from the 2016 Olympic Games due to systematic drug use amongst athletes. The consequences of doping in this instance negatively impacted both athletes who were doping and those who were not. Russia and Russian sporting bodies also received extensive criticism and judgment from other countries as a result of the scandal, which tarnished the perception of all athletes representing Russia in Rio.

The loss of reputation can involve a loss of respect amongst peers, spectators and any young people who consider that particular athlete a role model. The media may also capitilise on the situation, vilifying athletes who participate in drug use as a way of selling news.

Athletes who are caught may also suffer prolonged and long term emotional and psychological stress from the fallout of their actions and subsequent loss of reputation.

Loss of Sponsorship and Income
Athletes are often lured into using performance enhancing drugs by the promise of financial reward. There are millions of dollars every year invested into sport by sponsors, governments and supporters. Athletes often have short careers compared to other professionals, due to the physical nature of what they do, therefore money and financial stability can be extremely appealing.

It is important for athletes to remember that being caught using performance enhancing drugs can tarnish the sport. It can lead to a withdrawal of sponsorship and funding for the sport and athletes can lose their income impacting their livelihood. Receiving ban from the sport and losing sponsorship can mean that an athlete will have to change or end their sporting career. This can have sustained negative impact of mental and physical wellbeing.

For Strength           

Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
Human Growth Hormones are naturally produced in the body’s pituitary gland. These chemicals improve the frequency of amino acid transportation to skeletal muscle cells, stimulating the growth of muscle, cartilage and bone and increasing muscle size. The artificial form of this hormone allows athletes to train more intensely and recover quickly. As a result this substance is appealing to athletes who are looking to build strength and power.

The use of HGH can have many side effects including a significant increase in the size of the athlete’s hands, face and feet (also known as acromegaly). Prolonged use can also lead to heart problems and the development of enlarged kidneys and other organs.

Anabolic Steroids
Anabolic steroids cause the body to develop greater muscle size and bone mass. The substance encourages muscle and cells within the body’s skeletal system to produce new protein.

Like HGH, this form of steroid is used to increase size and weight, strength and power and will be appealing to sprinters, rugby players and individuals who participate in other high intensity sports.

Steroids enable the athlete to recover faster from a workout so they may get back in and train again. Consequently, athletes can improve their performance over a shorter period of time; they are able to train longer or more often without worrying about fatigue.

Use of Anabolic Steroids can lead to a number of serious and negative side effects ranging from mood swings and aggression to infertility and the development of liver and cardiovascular disease. In males, excessive use can result in testicular atrophy, baldness, breast development and sexual dysfunction function. Females may develop physical, male characteristics such as the interruption of their menstrual cycle and thickening of the vocal cords.

For Aerobic Performance (EPO)

Erythroprotein (EPO) is a natural hormone, which is secreted from the kidneys when there are low oxygen levels in the body. This hormone helps stimulate the production of red blood cells resulting in can increase of oxygen in the body.

Endurance athletes are those most likely to inject EPO into their body. Increasing the absorption of oxygen in the body improves endurance levels and reduces fatigue. Some elite, long distance cyclists have been caught using this drug to boost performance and as a result the entire sport has come under scrutiny.

There are severe effects of using EPO including the development of poor circulation and an increased thickening of the blood, which can lead to clotting, thrombosis and heart problems, such as a stroke or heart attack.

Another method used to enhance aerobic ability is blood doping. Blood is withdrawn from the athlete leading up to competition, isolating the red blood cells within the blood and then re-injecting prior to competing to increase the oxygen carrying capability of the body. Again this is illegal. This form of doping is supposed to mimic the effects of EPO without the need for introducing a synthetic chemical.

To Mask Other Drugs

Diuretics are used by athletes to hide the use of other drugs. These substances can change the chemical make up in urine increasing the likelihood that the presence of prohibited substances will go unnoticed. As a result, the use of diuretics is banned.

Diuretics are used to increase the amount of fluid moving and passing through the body. They are commonly used by athletes to mask the use of performance enhancing drugs or to lose weight quickly. Athletes who compete in sports that require them to perform at a certain weight level such as boxing, weight lifting or horse riding (jockey) may use diuretics to control their weight. As a masking agent, diuretics dilute the urine making it difficult for testers to detect the use of other substances.

The side effects of using diuretics include dizziness, cramps, kidney failure and dehydration.

While alcohol is considered a diuretic, it is not considered a performance enhancing drug. As a depressant, drinking actually has a negative effect on performance. Some athletes may still be tempted to use this as a diuretic as it dilutes the urine.

Benefits and Limitations of Drug Testing

The aim of drug testing is to ensure that athletes compete on an equal and equitable playing field. The rights of athletes are protected and represented by creating a clean sporting environment. The fact that drug testing is performed regularly and constantly serves as a deterrent for drug use to most athletes.

While it is positive that organisations like WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and ASADA (Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency) commit time and effort into research and testing, the high costs of anti-doping test mean that they can’t test as many athletes as they would like to.

Testing is also reactive, meaning that it one step behind in terms of the drugs being used. Additional performance enhancing drugs and techniques are constantly being created and it is difficult for testing agencies to predict and keep up with new developments. As a result, organisations must conduct steady research and find innovative ways to identify newly created drugs to ensure they can test for all substances.

Drug testing can be confronting for some athletes, especially people who are new to the process, as it involves the removal of all clothing in front of a tester, who must then watch watched as they urinate into a sample cup.

While there are benefits and limitations to drug testing there is some debate as to whether the process is effective or not. Some critics claim that drug testing is an invasion of privacy, too costly to maintain and that anti-doping policies are inconsistent between sports. For example, an Olympic sprinter caught using an anabolic steroid will incur a two year ban from the sport, compared to the recent peptide scandal in rugby league which saw the athletes back on the field following the off-season break.

The counter-argument for continued drug testing is that that it promotes and provides the best possible environment for an even playing field. It makes athletes more accountable for their health and supports the ideal that good sportsmanship and doping are incompatible.