From cocaine to EPO and steroids: wide differences among doping substances used by cheaters

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Doping substances are many and have evolved from the rawest stimulants and narcotics used in the 1960s, to the more refined substances that we are familiar with today, such as EPO and steroids. But, do you know which sports disciplines are associated with which substances? Here, a UCPH professor sheds light on a few of the substances used by cycling, boxing and archery cheats.

Athletes will soon stand poised upon many types of courses and fields at the Tokyo Olympic Games - fully focused, highly trained and nourished to perfection. But despite their immense preparation, including years of training, strict diets and psychological readying, the temptation to cheat and use performance-enhancing drugs to reach the final meter or shatter a world record remains too great for some, unfortunately.

Doping has quite likely been around for as long as major sporting events - dating back to ancient Greece, where folklore recounts the use of herbal extracts, alcohol and even insect stings as ways to enhance athletic performance.

In the 1960s, hard drugs like cocaine, amphetamines and heroin were used by many athletes - with occasionally fatal consequences.

Today, drugs like EPO, steroids and beta blockers are used as quick fixes to reach the podium. There are however, major differences between the types of substances used by cheaters across various disciplines.

"The organs and body parts one needs to manipulate to become stronger depends upon whether you are a cyclist, weightlifter or archer, for example," states Professor Nikolai Nordsborg, head of the University of Copenhagen's Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports.

Strength and sprints = steroids

Where strength and speed are key, the use of steroids like testosterone is the most common type of doping.

"This applies to weightlifters, shot-putters, boxers and wrestlers, as well as to track and field sprinters and swimmers. This is due to the fact that testosterone stimulates our muscles to gain mass, which makes an individual stronger and thereby better able to perform," explains Nikolai Nordsborg.

Testosterone is extraordinarily difficult to detect in drug tests because athletes use it for building muscle mass well ahead of major events. This allows them to realize the effects of the hormone without it being detectable in doping controls after the substance has ceased to be active in the body. Nikolaj Nordsborg elaborates:

"However, testosterone is by no means benign. It can lead to a range of diseases - including infertility and cardiovascular disease."

Endurance = EPO

Bulky muscles aren't required for endurance athletes.

"If we take cyclists, marathon runners and rowers, what they typically need is optimal oxygen uptake. Here, the amount of blood and blood composition plays a key role. As a result, some of these athletes use erythropoietin, a hormone more commonly known as EPO. Its use became widespread in cycling from the late 1980s onward," says Nikolai Nordsborg. He adds:

"EPO promotes the formation of red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body, thereby providing a rider or runner with more energy to move and work hard. Several studies also suggest that the use of EPO increases endurance."

While EPO is produced naturally in our kidneys, it was synthetically manufactured in 1989 and is now used to treat cancer and kidney patients who are unable to create enough of the hormone themselves - as well as being used by blood-dopers. Excessive levels of EPO can thicken blood and lead to blood clots and cardiac arrest.

Concentration and precision = beta blockers

Finally, Nikolai Nordsborg points to a completely different category of athletes - those who require maximum concentration, precision and calm. This group includes archers, golfers and darts players.

"Athletes in these disciplines must remain absolutely calm. For them, the most widely used doping substances are beta blockers, sometimes used for patients with severe exam anxiety. These medications lower the heart rate and blood pressure, which reduces shakiness in one's hands less and may lessen nervousness," says Nikolai Nordsborg.

The use of beta blockers has side effects too. These come in the form of muscle fatigue, dizziness and reduced endurance. In some cases, they can even affect the heart.

For more Olympics-related research, visit our theme page at ku.dk.

FACTS:

From raw drugs to refined doping

  • Raw narcotics and stimulants were used for doping in the 1960s. For example, cyclists, swimmers and boxers used a variety of drugs including strychnine, cocaine, amphetamines and heroin.
     
  • Dianabol - an anabolic steroid - was developed in the 1950s, blood doping in the 1970s, growth hormone in 1985 and EPO in 1987. These make up some of the most widespread doping drugs available today.

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