Athletic doping present in all levels of sports

concept of drugs in sportsby Lyle J. Micheli, MD, director of Children’s Division of Sports Medicine

The Winter Olympics in Vancouver are now well underway; the question of athletic doping in sports inevitably will be addressed and revisited. It is important to realize that this is by no means a new issue although methods of detecting doping and the various methodologies for doping have now changed dramatically over the years.

In the simplest terms, doping is any extreme substance added to a regimen, an athlete’s diet or in the case of blood doping, to their physiological system in an attempt to enhance performance. Organized sports in general and the Olympics in particular take issue with these techniques because they are unethical and they represent cheating. In addition, medical doctors, such as myself, who have dealt with sports medicine for many years, are concerned about the health implications of doping, particularly in young athletes.

It is important to realize that this is not a new problem. Doping has probably been around as long as there have been athletic competitions. The world first became aware of doping during the cycling events in the late 19th century in which competitive cyclists were taking substances ranging from caffeine to ether to cyanide. A number of drug related deaths resulted in outcry at that time and set the stage for doping detection.

The Olympic movement first began to systematically test for doping in the 1968 Olympics. It has now become an intrinsic part of any major sports competition. In addition to Olympic athletes, professional athletes ranging from football, baseball, tennis and rugby are now systematically tested in an attempt to rule out these methods which not only are cheating but they are so often unhealthy and unsafe.

As a physicians dealing with young athletes, one of our major concerns is that the young athletes, hearing of the elite athletes taking performance enhancing substances, might be tempted to emulate them. In particular, we are greatly concerned about the use of anabolic steroids in young athletes. These can be dangerous for a number of different reasons including their effect upon the cardiovascular system, the actual muscles and tendons themselves and on the liver.

In addition, in the growing child they may affect growth and actually tend to repress growth. Fortunately or unfortunately, testing in junior athletes is rare. For one thing, the cost would be prohibitive and no one knows for sure the extent of the problem. I believe the best way we can help prevent this behavior is to combine the efforts of sports physicians, athletic trainers, coaches and parents to diligently watch for signs of anabolic steroid use and to counsel against them at every level.