World of Sports Doping: From the Laboratory to the Playing Field
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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Bob Doughty. Our subject this week is sports doping.
Sports have long been part of popular culture. In the United States, some players are as famous as movie stars or rock musicians. The lives of famous athletes are described not only in the news media, but in films and literature.
Sports also have found their way into everyday sayings. One such example says: "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." That expression has been used for many years to define honor in sports. But today, many people question the honor of some athletes.
Last week, a star of North American baseball announced he had used a banned substance to improve his performance. Alex Rodriguez apologized for using the substance during a three-year period beginning in two thousand one.
Rodriguez is the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball. His comments came two days after a magazine reported that he failed a test for performance-improving drugs, also known as anabolic steroids. Sports Illustrated reported that Rodriguez failed the test in two thousand three. That same year, he won the first of his three most valuable player awards. The report said more than one hundred other players also failed the test.
Major League Baseball did not begin punishing its players for using steroids until two thousand four.
Most sports organizations have banned the non-medical use of steroids. But some athletes continue to take them. They believe these substances help them in competition.
Steroids are used to increase muscle strength. But steroids can damage the liver and halt the production of testosterone. They can also cause personality changes.
People who take steroids may become increasingly angry. Some become dependent on steroids and feel they cannot live without them. Users can become depressed and, in some cases, even want to kill themselves.
What does it mean 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 hair.
Testosterone is produced in the adrenal glands and reproductive organs. 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. Such products are manufactured in a laboratory for medical purposes. But some athletes use testosterone to strengthen their muscles and improve their performance. These products are banned in many sports.
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.
Athletes from around the world gathered in China last year for the Beijing Olympic Games. They competed for the honor of being the fastest, strongest or most skilled performer in a sporting event. But did the athletes compete in fairness and truth? Did those who received medals win because of natural ability? Or did they get help from the use of performance-improving drugs?
Recently, the International Olympic Committee announced plans to re-test blood from more than five hundred Olympic competitors. First results are expected in March.
Officials are testing for continuous erythropoiesis receptor activator, or CERA. This is a new version of the endurance improving hormone erythropoietin, also known as EPO. CERA has a longer lasting effect in improving the transport of oxygen in the blood. We will tell more about blood doping later in our program.
Ten years ago, the International Olympic Committee held a conference that led to creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. This all followed events at the Tour de France. In the summer of nineteen 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 like 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 such hormone is EPO. It is said to be most useful to athletes in endurance sports such as cycling and distance running. 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.
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.
So what is wrong with doping? That is a question some people ask, even some health experts. 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.
The World Anti-Doping Agency published a statement from its medical director. Alain Garnier said doctors should have nothing to do with doping. Doctor Garnier said 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 said, would permit economic resources and scientific expertise to decide competition. And, he said, only those with the resources and the expertise would win.
This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Lawan Davis. Brianna Blake was our producer. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Bob Doughty. Read and listen to our programs at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.