Let’s drop the charade. The “clean sport” fairytale is helping no one. Nearly all Olympic and professional athletes have used anabolic steroids and/or other banned performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) at some point during their athletic careers (gasp for effect).
If they hadn’t, they’d be less healthy, they’d constantly get injured, and sports just wouldn’t be as entertaining to watch. You’d be seeing guys like me on the Olympic stage, snatching 160kg and clean and jerking 190kg. It’s good I suppose, but it’s certainly not what we want to see at top-level competitions.
PEDs have always been a part of sports, and they always will be. The moral objection to PEDs is based in tradition, not on logic that applies to today’s circumstances. Forget about the taboo around anabolic steroids and other PEDs for just a few minutes. Let’s move the conversation past: “How do we get PEDs out of sports?” to “How do we prevent PED abuse?”
The higher level the athlete, the greater the chance that they’ve used banned PEDs. Athletes work their bodies to the limit during every training session. To become nationally competitive in most sports, athletes train at least five times a week, every week, for years on end. To get to Pan-American, European or Asian Championships, they’ll usually increase training to 8+ sessions per week. When they get to the highest level of sportsmanship (Olympic or professional sports), their training will go up to 12-21 sessions per week.
For perspective, this essentially translates to the average Olympic weightlifter in the 105kg weight class lifting 120-315 TONS over their heads on a weekly basis. The sheer volume of work required to compete on the international level is monstrously unhealthy. The human body is not built to naturally recover from this amount of wear and tear. To deal with this, nearly all world class athletes, across most sports, rely on PEDs to increase their rate of recovery to avoid injuries and to be able to continue their athletic development.
“But Yasha, athletes get drug tested! How do they avoid being caught?”
If there’s a slight chance of being tested during training, many athletes will use small amounts of PEDs which won’t stay in their system for long, train in remote training centers or use designer drugs. Within weeks or months of competition, they’ll stop taking PEDs altogether so that they don’t get detected in their blood or urine.
Before heading to a competition, many athletes get their blood and urine samples tested “unofficially” to ensure that their samples don’t have traces of PEDs during the “official” testing.
Some countries have private labs that charge as little as $120 to test samples for PEDs. In other countries, Sports Federations provide their athletes with free (and usually mandatory), pre-competition testing at unofficial labs. They do this to make sure that the athletes they send to represent their country don’t get popped publicly, which is costly and would be an embarrassment to the country. If an “unofficial laboratory” doesn’t find traces of PEDs in a sample, an athlete will know that the official, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) probably won’t find any either. If an athlete fails the unofficial testing – they’ll skip the competition to avoid the risk of exposure.
For these testing laboratories to have any value, they must be at least as sensitive as the WADA testing labs. Some countries have unofficial testing labs that are very-well funded and have a significantly better technology and testing methods than used by WADA. Athletes who have access to these better labs rarely get busted at competitions. The athletes that are from countries that have underfunded laboratories end up getting popped the most.
Over the last several months, blood and urine samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics have been re-tested by WADA, and many previously-considered “clean” athletes have failed retroactive doping tests. This happened partially because of a new testing method that was recently developed. The new method is able to detect the use of many PEDs (or their metabolites) for longer after athletes stopped using them than what previous testing methods allowed. As an example, a few years ago, Stanozolol (a widely used anabolic steroid) couldn’t be detected in urine if it was used more than 3 months before testing. With the new testing method, traces of Stanozolol can now be detected if it was used within 9 months.
Personally, I believe that re-testing samples from past competitions does not make the playing field any more fair. Let bygones be bygones. Going back to the 2008 or 2012 Olympic samples and retesting them is like if the police developed a method to trace back to every time you’ve driven over the speed limit. Most people thinks it’s fair to get a ticket if you are caught speeding. But what if everyone gets boxes of tickets for all of their speeding offenses from the past 20 years?
I do believe that PEDs should be officially banned from sports, just as I believe that driving above the speed limit should be illegal. Athletes should continue to be subject to in and out-of-competition testing. This will continue to reduce the abuse of PEDs, similar to how the existence of speed limits helps reduce unsafe driving. But I think that retroactive testing must be eliminated. If they weren’t caught during the official testing, then they weren’t caught, and it should be left at that.
If retroactive testing continues and testing methods advance, eventually all top level athletes who were tested will be “dirty.” Say goodbye to professional and Olympic sports and the hero athletes we look up to, who’ve devoted their entire lives to the sport. Everyone’s disqualified.
Before you start freaking out at me, you should note that I’m not condoning the use of anabolic steroids or other PEDs. I’m acknowledging their widespread use in modern sport, and I believe that this acknowledgement and open, honest discussion is important.
I realize that many athletes have avoided the temptation of using PEDs and have competed clean their whole lives. But our “clean-sport fairy-tale” and our pretense that their use is at all rare creates a stream of misleading information about supplements, PEDs, our heroes, and sports as a whole. I understand that your favorite coach and your favorite athletes say that they are fully clean, and maybe they are. But there’s also a really good chance they are claiming to be clean because they must.
We need to develop a logical approach to PEDs that is applicable to the modern state of sports. The abstinence-only approach to education on PEDs doesn’t prevent people from using them, but it does lead to unsafe use, abuse, and an overall lack of knowledge on what it takes to be a successful, healthy athlete. Let’s replace the “abstinence-only” approach with comprehensive discussions and education, with an emphasis on safety and facts – instead of repeating the phrase “drugs are bad.”
There is much more to say about the topic of drugs in sports. Corruption in testing, prevalent unsafe use, my personal story, and much more. I hope to write about some of these topics in the months to come.
If you think this deserves further discussion and should be let out into the sun – share!