Faster, higher, drugged to the eyeballs

11 minute read

Drugs are now used so widely in sport that the concept of a level playing field may be an anachronism


Drugs are now used so widely at so many levels of sport, the question is whether the concept of a level playing field is an anachronism

In the heat and dirt of mid-summer Moscow on July 14, 2014, a coach and young athlete meet at the Kazansky Railway Station.

Victor Mokhenev is one of Russia’s top athletics trainers and is showing 800 metre running star Yuliya Stepanova a selection of vials.

They begin to transfer them to the cold bag she has brought.

Stepanova asks whether the drugs are EPO, to which he replied they were “peptides”.

“There are different types; for endurance, for increasing testosterone, for increasing adrenalin triphospahe… there are many… about 12 different kinds,” said Mokhenev.

“Is it not allowed to compete dirty now?” she asks.

“Well, if you are number one, then you can compete dirty,” he replies.

The transfer is complete and the two part ways, but not before Mokhenev tells Stepanova where she can secure more peptides when she runs out.

The damning scene is just one of dozens referred to in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report into Russian athletics released in early November. The Moscow meeting was secretly recorded by Stepanova herself.

“It is worse than we thought,” former WADA President Dick Pound told a packed 3pm press conference in Geneva when the investigation report was released on November 9. “It has the effect of affecting the results on the field of play. Athletes both in Russia and abroad are suffering because of that.”

It was the middle of the night in Australia as Pound spoke, but athletes across the country were breaking strict training curfews to watch, listen and read the report’s findings.

One such athlete was Australian race walker Jared Tallent. He had taken silver in the 50km walk at the 2012 London Olympics behind Russian Sergey Kirdyapkin. In the early hours of November 10, he saw Kirdyapkin named as one of the national Russian race walking team said to have benefited from “an institutionalised and systemic ongoing doping scheme”.

Kirdyapkin had been banned for doping prior to the Olympics and was banned again shortly after, but, to Tallent’s chagrin, he had literally been provided with a golden window of opportunity to compete in London.

The Russian walker’s bans had been for blood-boosting – ramping up the red blood cell count – by withdrawing some of his own blood when his haemoglobin was high, cryofreezing it until just prior to competition, and then reinfusing it. An increased haemoglobin level reduces fatigue and improves endurance; powerful tools when competing in a 50km event.

Kirdyapkin’s coach Victor Chegin was suspended in July 2015 and WADA has recommended he be banned for life.

“Unfortunately for someone like Jared it’s too late,” says David Hughes, chief medical officer with the Australian Institute of Sport and medical director for the 2016 Australian Olympic Team for Rio. “While he gets some sort of retrospective vindication, obviously he has missed out on his moment. It’s tragic because there is someone who is a fantastic person and an athlete who works very hard.”

As a result of the WADA report, there is now a total ban on Russian athletes competing in any of the leading international events and a big question mark over whether they will be allowed to compete in the Rio Olympics in August next year.

But Pound and others say far from being the end of the problem, the events show there is a lot more cheating going on than most people thought.

Already, WADA President Craig Reedie is talking of instigating a similar inquiry into the state of Kenyan athletics, and there are also questions about Jamaica. The integrity of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) – which is at the centre of the sport’s anti-doping testing and enforcement – is itself under scrutiny with money laundering and corruption charges laid against former president Diack Lamine and other officials in relation to the Russian scandal.

Australian cheating

Thanks to athletes like Tallent and many others, Australia is at the cleaner end of the doping spectrum. Nevertheless, between November 2014 and November 2015 the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) sanctioned 45 athletes from 11 different sports in relation to the use of banned substances.

During the year there were bans relating to the use of steroids, peptide hormones, analogues, and sometimes a combination of two or more, in sports ranging from baseball to AFL, athletics, rugby union, rugby league, tennis and others. At Australia’s border, 2013 and 2014 saw more than 7000 detections of performance enhancing drugs, the second highest figure on record. All of this was while the ongoing investigation and prosecutions related to doping in the AFL were taking place.

ASADA is now finding an average of a little more than two positive urine tests each month, says chief executive Ben McDevitt. “In my mind this is a particularly worrying trend given many banned substances exit the body very quickly and there are masking agents and sophisticated doping techniques designed to minimise the chances of testing positive.

“We would be naïve to think that we do not face an ongoing threat by doping. For some, the win at all costs mentality is paramount.”

Amid the ongoing revelations of cheating, new impetus has been given to the argument that the war on doping cannot be won, therefore the use of drugs in sport should be deregulated.

“Sometimes people just throw their hands in the air and say ‘let it be an open slather environment’,” says Hughes, who is staunchly against any change.

“But I look at a case like Jared and I say ‘no’ because people like him should be able to go and compete knowing that the best person wins on the day and there’s no external influences on the outcome.”

Drawing a line

As the science of elite training enters new realms, questions are being raised about why the line is drawn at doping, when there is not the same regulation of other technologies used to hone sporting prowess.

In Portland, Oregon, not far from Nike world headquarters, a collection of buildings make up the Nike Oregon Project (NOP). The NOP is an elite training facility for endurance runners, which has been credited with leading a revival in US distance running. Under the leadership of former distance running champion, Alberto Salazar, the project provides the most sophisticated science and technology to foster sporting greatness. There are even underwater treadmills.

However, most controversial is the hypoxic accommodation for the athletes, enabling them to effectively live in high altitude conditions and train in a normal low altitude environment. Hughes describes it as an ideal training arrangement, which has a similar effect to EPO and autologous transfusion without the medical intervention.

Top athletes to have emerged from the NOP include American Galen Russ, who won silver in the 10,000 metre run at the London Olympics and English athlete Mo Farah who beat him to take gold.

The NOP is often used as an example of the arbitrary nature of doping rules. Whether you inject EPO or sleep in a hypoxic chamber, the biological outcome is very similar and similarly beneficial. Such was the concern in the world of elite athletics that WADA made a special investigation of the facilities in Portland to determine whether it constituted doping. WADA concluded that it didn’t.

The difference between doping and high-tech training, says Hughes, is that the body’s regulatory systems remain intact in the latter.

There have since been allegations by former NOP athletes that doping is also part of the culture at the Portland facility. These allegations relate to the chronic use of common medications for diagnosed conditions such as asthma and thyroid deficiency. Such medications – including prednisone, levothyroxine and even salbutamol – have in turn been linked to long-term performance-enhancing effects including reduced recovery times and rapid quick weight loss.


Dr Paul Dimeo is a sports academic who believes the rules relating to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport should be reconsidered.

The author of A History of Drug Use in Sport 1876 – 1976: Beyond Good and Evil points out that while steroid use can have serious side effects – including heart disease – those risks are not high compared to the risks of alcohol, cigarettes and other commonly used drugs.

“There’s a tendency to over-exaggerate the health outcomes of performance enhancing drugs and there’s a tendency to exaggerate the consequences of deregulation,” says Dr Dimeo, Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling, Scotland.
“People are fearful that if the policy is deregulated, they will be forcing their children to dope themselves to death; that sporting competition will become a rivalry between pharmaceutical companies, and the athletes who are prepared to kill themselves the quickest.

“There’s a lot of overreaction to steroids in particular and a lot of that is historically misinformed,” he says.
Dr Dimeo, who has worked with WADA, stresses he is not pro-doping and is not in favour of full deregulation. “I’m just asking for some common sense around the edges of this policy. People should minimise the risk that they take but the idea of a level playing field is an anachronism.

“The idealisation of natural bodies, inherited skills, and sport being healthy is some sort of utopia.”

Despite the opinions of Dr Dimeo and others, there are no moves towards lifting doping regulation. If anything, the recent revelations in relation to doping mean that testing by many organisations is getting more rigorous. And if there is anything positive to come out of the November WADA report, it’s that the recordings show even the state-sponsored Russian doping system was having difficulty countering some of the anti-doping testing now being undertaken.

The IOC has now determined that Jared Tallent should have been acknowledged as the winner in the 2012 50-kilometre walk. But four years later and a long way from the stadium cheers and podium glory, Tallent is still waiting for the gold medal to arrive.

Meanwhile he is training for Rio.

Amateur Doping

Many years ago when my then-farmer boyfriend and I were planning an overseas trip, he casually mentioned he would buy his plane ticket with the proceeds from the sale of sheep testosterone to some boys at the local gym.
“What?” I asked, briefly distracted from dreams of the Andes.

“It’s ok, it’s only the out-of-date supply,” he said, seeming to confuse my puzzlement with concern he was wasting the farm’s resources.

I ended up speaking with the prospective buyer about what he was buying and why. The teenager explained that it was for amateur bodybuilding. “Nothing serious.”

He finished the conversation by explaining that he needed to go and have something to eat as he had also begun using insulin to help increase his muscle bulk and thought his blood sugar may be dropping. “Go!” I said.

This was not Ben Johnson at the Seoul Olympics. This was a teenage gym goer in a town better known for country music than bodybuilding prowess.

Surveys have long shown that the use of performance enhancing drugs by amateur sportspeople – in particular those in the gym community – is common. But it is hard to find figures to quantify how widely doping takes place in amateur competition. Testing can be expensive and sports associations necessarily focus scarce resources on professional competitors.

Older cyclists in the US and UK have recently been banned for using EPO and clenbuterol and experts think the same is likely to begin occurring here if it isn’t already.

Australian forensic psychologist and sports doping researcher Stephen Moston says testing is needed beyond the elite realm. “It needs to move into amateur sport. It needs to move into even younger competitive sport. The message needs to get across.”

In response to increasing concern about the sport’s integrity, in March, Triathlon Australia announced that it would begin testing amateur age-category competitors at selected events.

Moston hopes that other sporting organisations will follow their lead.

Annabel McGilvray is a freelance writer specialising in the realms of medicine and science. First published in print in December 2015.

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