For a word whose primary definition is some sort of preparation applied to fabric to improve stiffness - or, alternatively, an anti-knock agent added to petrol, dope sure has been making headlines.

That makes us wonder if plumbers suffer a bit of dissonance when they hear that word; they likely all have pipe dope in their toolboxes. That type of dope is a preparation applied to pipe ends to make joining them to a spigot or connector easier and help make them leakproof.

In any case, you don't have to be a dope (a stupid person) to know that doping is a bad idea, especially ahead of a sports competition. So why do so many athletes do it?

Let's back up on the 'so many' qualifier. The number of athletes who take performance-enhancing substances is often inaccurately reported. We only hear about the ones that got caught, seldom do those reports say how many athletes scheduled to compete in the same event didn't fail a doping test.

Back to that question now, worded slightly differently: why do athletes dope?

Athletes have many reasons for doping
Athletes dope for a variety of reasons. Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Athletes Need to Dope

At least they think they do. Are you familiar with Game Theory?

This theory posits that athletes choose their strategies based on the strategies they think their opponents will deploy. This is where things get interesting.

Studies have shown that when athletes confront each other - on the pitch, in the ring or across the net, and they've not had any chance to communicate, invariably, cheating will ensue. Particularly if this is a single face-off. However, if the players are known to one another, the strategy shifts to a tit-for-tat formula.

This strategy starts off cooperative, with one player mirroring the other. However, the greater the number of players individual athletes confront and the longer the game goes on, rather than building trust, betrayal ensues.

Athletes may know each other quite well; well enough to know that there's at least a chance that the other one is doping. Thus, they dope because their opponent probably doped. Meanwhile, the suspected opponent also suspects other athletes are doping, therefore. they too must dope to remain competitive.

How are they not worried this escalation will eventually see them banned from sports?

Dopers Stay a Step Ahead

We don't mean that facetiously: doping athletes have a number of ways to get around the dope tests.

For one, the types of dope available are multiplying; long gone are the days when all testers had to watch for were traces of anabolic steroids and testosterone. Modern doping techniques are quite sophisticated, extending all the way to athletes having their own blood drawn and re-injecting it just before a competition. Believe it or not, this practice can substantially boost athletic performance.

Science works much harder to find innovative ways to dope than they do in establishing methods to test for doping, making it unlikely that testers will ever catch up. In that same vein (again, a pun!), science has figured out more ways to trick dope tests. Thinning the blood is one way to go about it; using masking agents also works well.

Oh, and often, anti-doping measures are not comprehensive. Some teams might only test a few players, leaving the rest until the next testing round. Athletes, by nature, are a competitive bunch, don't mind taking risks when the odds are stacked in their favour.

Doping works

Nothing excuses doping but, at least, athletes' reasons for doing it might be more understandable. Those given so far are just a part of the puzzle; the main reason athletes dope is because doping works.

Doping athletes tend to not offer themselves up for scientific study but doping effects have nevertheless been researched on small groups of non-professional athletes. The results were stunning. Depending on the dope or combination of dopes - say, a blood-boosting drug like EPO along with the blood drawing-and-reinjecting technique yields up to a 10% performance boost.

Considering how close some events are - many are decided by just fractions of a point, a 10% performance boost is massive.

Now that we know why athletes dope, let's take a closer look at doping particulars.

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How Long has Doping Been Around?

You might be surprised to find out that the original Olympians, the Ancient Greeks, were the first to dope. Around 300 BCE, athletes consumed sheep's testicles to gain a testosterone boost ahead of competition. They didn't do it on the sly, either; they were encouraged to eat them.

It was common for Greek athletes to ingest testosterone before competition.
Athletes in Ancient Greece would routinely ingest testosterone before any competition. Photo by Daniil Khudiakov on Unsplash

The next proven record of doping comes more than a millennium later:

  • 1904: Thomas Hicks takes two strychnine injections from his trainer during a marathon race. He won.
  • 1928: the International Association of Athletics Federation bans doping in full knowledge that they have no way to enforce that ban.
  • 1954: a physician for the US team discovers the USSR weightlifters have been boosting their performance with testosterone. Soon after, the US weightlifting team starts taking anabolic steroids.
  • 1966: athletes are dope-tested for the first time, during the European Athletics Championships
  • 1988: Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive.
    • Carl Lewis received the medal even though he, too, tested positive for dope.
  • 2012: Lance Armstrong is stripped of all titles and awards received since 1998.
  • 2015: Russian athletes are banned from international competitions because of state-sponsored doping cover-ups.

In 1976, scientists developed the first test to positively identify anabolic steroids, which made it possible to enforce the ban of these substances at Olympic events. True to the nature of sports politics, there were a few dissenters but not enough to vote the measure down.

Besides, by that time, plenty more types of dope had made their way into athletes' veins.

Types of Doping

So far, we've mentioned strychnine - an exceedingly dangerous type of dope that (hopefully) nobody uses anymore, testosterone and anabolic steroids. We've touched on blood doping - re-injecting one's own blood right before competition and something called EPO.

Are there any other types of dope?

Amphetamines like caffeine and ephedrine stimulate the cardiovascular and central nervous systems. They also help athletes stay alert and focused.

Estradiol and anti-inflammatories fit in the same category as anabolic steroids and testosterone. They're used during training to build speed, strength and power. Narcotics such as morphine, heroin or its synthetic cousin methadone and cocaine are used post-workout to help heal the body and relax.

Growth hormones such as somatotropin increase muscle mass. Ever since 'roid rage' exploded onto the news scene, detailing stories of people taking steroids who can't control their anger, these hormones have become the go-to dope for bodybuilders.

Beta-blockers reduce anxiety and lower the heart rate; they also relax the muscles. Chess players might take a beta-blocker ahead of a major tournament. Another common medicine, diuretics, is used by judokas and wrestlers to reduce their body weight.

Finally, the mysterious EPO stands for erythropoietin. It's a glycoprotein cytokine that stimulates the production of red blood cells. This cytokine is made naturally in the body and our bones constantly make red blood cells but stimulating excess production can have serious consequences, including heart attacks, strokes, blood clots and even death.

Lance Armstrong, the seven-time winner of the Tour de France was stripped of all honours, titles, prizes and recognition for engaging in a complex system of EPO and other blood doping techniques over the course of his career.

He's not even permitted to engage in sports diplomacy, now.

The US cyclist's doping scandal is likely the most renowned
One US cyclist's doping scandal may be the most renowned of all. Photo by Árni Svanur Daníelsson on Unsplash

Doping Controversies

Earlier, we mentioned Russian teams being banned from international competitions. It wasn't because so many athletes had doped; in fact, it was hard to determine which athletes if any had because the Russian authorities tampered with the laboratory results.

That was an unusual case of universal condemnation. Rarely is an entire contingent of athletes held accountable; it's usually individual athletes who pay the price for doping. Fortunately, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) relented on its 2015 decision; it permitted individual Russian athletes with no history of doping to compete.

Maria Sharapova was well on her way to becoming tennis great when, in 2016, she was called out for taking a drug to regulate her metabolism and protect her heart. WADA had banned that drug only two months before because of its performance-enhancing side effects: increased endurance decreased stress and central nervous system rehabilitation.

During the 2014 Winter Olympics, Norwegian hockey player Nicklas Backstrom was suspended just hours before he was due to play; his test came back positive for pseudoephedrine. Apparently overlooked was the paperwork his coach submitted that proved the 'dope' was legitimately administered.

And then, there's the strange case of Kamila Valieva, the Russian skater who, at just 15 years old, is unlikely to know about or have access to doping products. It was the decision heard 'round the world: she was absolved of wilful rule-breaking and allowed to continue the competition. Unfortunately, she shocked us all and, no doubt, herself with her stunning performance.

The controversy surrounding this gold medal winner puts her future as a skater at risk. Nevertheless, she will remain one of the most admirable women in sports.

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.