Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sports

Published 28 Dec 2016

The use of performance enhancing drugs in sports has been attracting considerable attention in recent times. Even though their use is banned in almost all sports more and more athletes have been discovered to be using a variety of drugs containing known performance enhancers. This issue seems now to be affecting increasingly more sporting areas and sporting associations worldwide are following trends to ban certain substances. Even where there is no outright ban, proper sport ethics warn against their use. There is considerable skepticism, however, on the safety of the chemical substances that athletes use to improve their performance and, from all reports, their usage by athletes seems to present dangerous, life threatening consequences. Certainly the use of performance enhancing drugs among athletes to boost performance is of much greater risk than benefit to not only the athletes concerned, but the entire sporting arena in general.
Ormsbee & Vukovich (2005) suggest that the use of performance enhancing drugs not only gives an unfair advantage to the user, but it could present grave psychological and physiological ill effects. Among the types of substances that are most commonly used among athletes for the purposes of improving their performance have been listed growth hormones, anabolic steroids, narcotic analgesics and diuretics.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic drugs which duplicate the work of testosterone. These are thought to encourage the growth of muscles and develop strength. Growth hormones also have these same effects as well as they increase “energy and vigor, and reduce wrinkles” (Ormsbee & Vukovich, 2005). Narcotic analgesics reduce sensitivity to pain thereby enabling athletes to continue in spite of any injury. Diuretics are used by athletes wanting to get rid of weight quickly particularly in competitions that have weight category limits. Another use of diuretics is to help avoid detection of banned substances during drug tests. This is possible as diuretics “increase urine volume and dilution to make detection of small quantities of banned substances more difficult” (MacAuley, 1996).
Ormsbee & Vukovich (2005) acknowledge the merits of using these substances to improve in areas that are deficient. They highlight empirical evidence which suggests that the use of certain substances does have the desired effect. In one study administering testosterone to subjects over a ten-week period it was discovered that there was an average gain of seven pounds of muscle. In other studies combining testosterone with strength training resulted in even greater average muscle-weight gained. Furthermore leg and chest strength in the subjects were also increased by up to 19 percent with testosterone treatment alone and as much as 38 percent when combined with strength training.
While these results may seem commendable, they do not appear as appealing when matched up against the potential health impact of using these substances. A number of physiological and psychological health conditions are known to be associated with the use of these substances. Among the conditions that are related to the use of substances present in growth hormones, anabolic steroids, narcotic analgesics, diuretics and similar drugs, researchers have noted cardiovascular problems, infertility, increased risk of cancer, hair loss and breast development in men (MacAuley, 1996). Giorgi et al (as cited in Ormsbee & Vukovich, 2005) report on a study revealing “increased systolic blood pressure, frontal alopecia, acne … increased aggression and irritability”.
Research proving a connection between long-term use of banned substances and certain medical conditions is, however, not totally conclusive. Such research is hindered as athletes are, understandably, unwilling to come forward and admit to using such substances and thus subjects are unavailable through which to conduct the necessary experiments. However, from whatever research that has been gathered it is clear that there are significant negative health effects associated with the use of performance enhancing drugs.
Besides the psychological and physiological effects of these substances there is also the problem of public image of sports particularly those constantly affected by banned substance violations. Almost no sport is immune to this phenomenon. Athletes involved in cricket, baseball, athletics, swimming, boxing, cycling and many others have come under scrutiny for suspected drug use (Blue, 2006). Famous athletes such as Ben Johnson in athletics, Barry Bonds in baseball and Floyd Landis in cycling have been discovered to have used banned substances.
With such top-class performers being involved in the messy issue, it is no wonder that the integrity of many sports has been called into question. While there may not be statistical evidence to prove it, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that some sports have lost supporters because of the negative image substance abuse portrays. No doubt the use of such substances is against the principles of fair competition (MacAuley, 1996) and thus when athletes continue to go against good ethical practices, the integrity of sports and competition is considerably diminished.
There are considerable costs attached to using these substances and the cost goes up if the athlete gets caught. The practice has been to ban athletes from competitions for prescribed periods of time. In the case of Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter, his penalty, after having tested positive for steroid use, involved being stripped of an Olympic Gold medal as well as a two year ban from International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) events. Ben Johnson offended once more and the second time resulted in a complete ban from all competitive track events.
There is indeed a high price to pay for using banned substances in sports but banning their use does not seem to be accomplishing much in diminishing usage among athletes. Athletes, young and old, professional and amateur are turning increasingly to these drugs as a means of furthering their career and keeping up with the high standards set by competitors and themselves. When the benefits and setbacks of using banned substances are weighed some athletes see the advantage on the side of using performance enhancers. Ormsbee & Vukovich (2005) acknowledge that “many athletes think that winning the gold medal or the championship is worth the risk.”
That is why increasingly more physicians are researching new types of drugs that are even harder to detect through urine analysis. Furthermore in a survey conducted by Bamberger and Yaeger (as cited in Ormsbee & Vukovich, 2005) more than 50 percent of professional athletes said they would use performance enhancers if they believed they would not get caught and even if they knew that the side effects would kill them within six years.
Blue (2006) does not agree with the position taken on performance enhancing drugs. In his opinion it is not the use of these substances that is damaging the image of sports but rather that the ban on their usage is doing more harm than good. He believes that if certain drugs are legalized within sporting circles, their harmful effects could be countered more easily. He suggests that proper monitoring and regulating of performance enhancing substances could help to level the sports playing field. He argues that many athletes have an unfair advantage over competitors because of certain genetic factors. Monitored usage of performance enhancers, he believes, would eliminate the starting advantage one competitor may have over the other.
Blue (2006) presents a forceful argument against the bad reputation of performance enhancers. He points out that often these drugs are used only in complement with normal training preparations. Athletes, he says, are not looking for an easy way out by taking in these substances. In fact drugs are used primarily during training sessions to allow athletes to train harder and to push their bodies beyond previously achieved limits. Therefore, though the drugs may present additional possibilities, the athletes still have to do a considerable amount of work to prepare for competition. In other words, performance enhancers are not miracle workers thus their use can be allowed once sporting officials monitor and regulate their distribution and usage.
Furthermore since banning these substances is not doing much good to the public image of the sport, legalizing their usage could remove the skepticism and get fans more interested in the sport itself instead of issues not specific to the sport. The use of performance enhancing drugs obviously has considerable disadvantages. Blue (2006) argues that it is the prohibition related to their use that is causing the problem while others suggest that it is the mere use that is the contentious issue. Whichever the case, it seems that performance enhancing drugs are more disadvantageous than advantageous. Whether, as Blue (2006) suggests, the ban is turning athletes and their trainers into “liars and cheats” or whether, as MacAuley (1996) argues, the use is compromising the integrity of the sport, the fact is performance enhancers present a serious problem.
Even though research is shady, there is no doubt that the use of controlled substances for the purpose of enhancing performance in sports does present some health concerns. As well public opinion and the integrity of sports seem also to be negatively affected. While research may never truly be able to prescribe and predict the effect that such performance enhancers may have on its users nor how far the integrity of the sports affected are compromised, it is clear that some action must be taken. Before the situation reaches unmanageable proportions officials must come up with more innovative strategies to diminish the use of performance enhancers if they hope to solve the problems it presents.


  • Blue, A. (2006, Aug 14). It’s the real dope. New Statesman, 135(4805), 41.
  • MacAuley, D. (1996, July 27). Drugs in sports. British Medical Journal, 313(7051), 211-215.
  • Ormsbee, M., Vukovich, M. (2005, May) Performance–enhancing drugs: Who’s taking them, and what are the benefits and risks? Idea Fitness Journal, 2(5), 60-65.
Did it help you?