From the Laboratory to the Playing Field: World of Sports Doping
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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Doug Johnson. Our subject this week is sports doping.
Last week, American runner Justin Gatlin accepted the results of a drug test from April. The test showed the presence of manufactured testosterone or other steroids. Gatlin has said he "never knowingly used any banned substance."
This was his second offense. The twenty-four-year-old runner could have faced a lifetime ban from competition.
But the United States Anti-Doping Agency says Gatlin has promised to cooperate in the effort to end the use of drugs in sports. So the agency agreed to suspend him for as long as eight years. The agreement gives the Olympic gold medal winner the right to seek a reduction in that period.
In May, in Qatar, Justin Gatlin equaled the world record time of Asafa Powell of Jamaica in the one hundred meter dash. Gatlin will keep that result at least for now, while he appeals his possible eight-year suspension.
His first offense, in two thousand one, involved his medicine for attention-deficit disorder. The medicine contained a stimulant banned for athletes. He could have been suspended for two years. But officials considered the violation a mistake, so he served only a one-year suspension.
Drug tests recently showed that American cyclist Floyd Landis had unusually high levels of testosterone during the Tour de France. The results led race officials to say they no longer considered Landis the winner.
The results also led one of our listeners in Nigeria, Lazarus Adumo, to ask what it means to have high levels of testosterone.
Testosterone is a steroid hormone. Hormones are chemicals that help keep the body working normally.
The effects of testosterone can be seen in boys when they become young men. They develop muscle power and become stronger. Testosterone is also important for other changes, like a deeper voice and the growth of body hair.
Testosterone is produced in the reproductive organs and the adrenal glands. Both men and women produce testosterone. Men produce much more of it than women do. But not all males produce the same amounts. Some naturally have higher levels than others.
Some people take testosterone supplements produced in a laboratory for medical purposes. But some athletes use synthetic testosterone to strengthen their muscles and improve their performance. These products are banned in many sports.
Officials say tests on Landis' urine found synthetic testosterone in addition to high levels of the kind produced naturally in the body.
Landis has denied taking any synthetic testosterone. And he has said the high testosterone levels could have resulted from medicines and from drinking beer and whiskey the night before the tests. Floyd Landis is to appear before the United States Anti-Doping Agency next month to try to explain the test results.
Researchers who have studied testosterone generally agree that long-term use may increase athletic performance. But they disagree about the short-term value. Also, testosterone supplements have risks. Most doctors agree that taking large amounts of testosterone can cause harmful effects. These include an increased risk of heart disease.
In nineteen ninety-nine, the International Olympic Committee held a conference that led to the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. This all followed events at the Tour de France. In the summer of ninety-eight, police carried out a raid and found banned medical substances.
After that, the International Olympic Committee led efforts to create an independent agency to set and enforce common anti-doping rules. The agency has representatives from the Olympic movement and public officials from around the world. WADA, as the agency is known, has its headquarters in Montreal, Canada.
"Doping" is the general term for the use of banned substances or practices to improve athletic performance. The World Anti-Doping Agency says the term probably came from the Dutch word "dop." That was the name for an alcoholic drink used by Zulu fighters in Africa to improve their performance in battle.
The agency says the word doping began to be used for athletes in the beginning of the twentieth century. At first it meant the illegal drugging of racehorses.
The agency notes that athletes have used substances for centuries to improve their performance. Ancient Greeks used special foods and drinks. Nineteenth century cyclists and others used alcohol, caffeine, cocaine -- even strychnine, a strong poison.
By the nineteen twenties, sports organizations were attempting to stop the use of doping substances. But at the time they lacked scientific ways to test for them.
One method of doping is called blood doping. This is the use of substances such as hormones or blood itself to increase the production of red blood cells. That way the blood moves more oxygen to the muscles, increasing their strength and performance.
One of these hormones is known as EPO. Recently anti-doping officials announced the discovery of EPO in a urine test on Marion Jones. If the results are confirmed, the Olympic champion runner could be banned from competition for two years.
Doctors say hormones used for blood doping thicken the blood and increase the chances of heart disease and stroke. Also, the use of blood from another person can spread viruses. But doctors say even the use of a person's own blood to increase the level of red blood cells in the body can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Another substance that can be used to increase performance is human growth hormone. This hormone is produced naturally by the pituitary gland in the brain. Athletes may take injections of human growth hormone, although that can be found with blood tests. Experts say such use of the hormone can cause diabetes, muscle and bone pain, high blood pressure and other disorders.
Some of the most common doping substances are steroids. These drugs are used to increase muscle strength. Steroids can damage the liver and halt the production of testosterone. They can also cause personality changes. People who take them may become increasingly angry. Some become dependent on the steroids and feel they cannot live without them. Users can become depressed and, in some cases, even want to kill themselves.
Sports dopers continually look for new substances and technologies. The World Anti-Doping Agency has already banned gene doping, although it says it does not believe anyone is doing it yet.
Officials say they want to be ready with a test to find genetic changes.
For example, imagine an athlete whose body contains genetic material from an animal. In theory, such a person could become a great athlete overnight.
Last week, Chinese media reported that investigators found employees injecting students with performance drugs at a sports school. Those employees at the school in the northeastern province of Liaoning now face criminal charges.
So what is wrong with doping? That is a question some people ask, even some health professionals. These people support the idea of medically supervised doping. They say it would reduce the dangers. They say competitions would be fairer if all the competitors were openly permitted to take part in doping.
Earlier this month, the World Anti-Doping Agency published a statement on its Web site from its medical director. Alain Garnier says doctors should have nothing to do with doping. Doctor Garnier says helping athletes perform better is not necessarily good for their health.
And he called it wrong and irresponsible to say that permitting doping would create an equal playing field. To accept doping, he says, would permit economic resources and scientific expertise to decide competition. And, he adds, only those with the resources and the expertise would win.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by George Grow, Nancy Steinbach and Caty Weaver. Brianna Blake was our producer. I'm Doug Johnson. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Transcripts and archives of our shows are at voaspecialenglish.com. We hope you can join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.