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HEALTH CURE: How doping works

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — The words “doping scandals”, “doping tests” and “doping officers” do not leave the press: such excitement always accompanies the Olympic Games and other major world-class sports competitions. Let’s see how doping works and how it is searched.

On your marks!

Doping is called a wide range of illegal methods to improve athletic performance. Sports historians say doping is almost the same age as sporting events. It is known that on the first day of the Olympics, ancient Greek athletes made sacrifices to the gods and swore that they would “not sin against the Games.” Alas, the oath did not prevent some of them from applying various tricks to increase the chances of victory. Antique sportsmen primarily served as “doping” for food prepared according to special recipes: for example, opium from poppy seeds was added to bread dough. Various decoctions were also appreciated – from a decoction of horsetail to a potion from a back donkey hoof, boiled in oil with pink petals.

 Doping drugs
File Depositphotos

The beginning of the modern era of doping is most often called the 1904 Summer Olympics. Then two claimed for victory in the marathon: worker Thomas Hicks and bricklayer Fred Lorz. Hicks came second thanks to his assistants: seeing that the runner was almost exhausted, his companions “treated” Hicks with a mixture of egg white and strychnine sulfate. In small doses, the strychnine alkaloid serves as a stimulant: exacerbates sensations, tones muscles and accelerates metabolic processes in the body. Then Hicks was helped to drink a cocktail of eggs and strychnine with a sip of brandy. Already on the way to the finish, the procedure had to be repeated, as the marathon runner again began to lose strength.

Fred Lortz managed to overtake Hicks and reach the finish line in three hours and 13 minutes. Initially, it seemed that Lortz did not become a winner: after the first 14 kilometers of the journey, he stepped out of the race and got into one of the cars accompanying the convoy of runners to get to the starting point. In the area of ​​the 30th kilometer of the distance, the car stalled, and Lorz regained strength and finished the marathon first. The judges declared his victory dishonest and gave the title to Hicks.

Stimulants were also used in other sports, but the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF ) was the first to ban the use of doping in competitions – in 1928. The first doping tests at the Olympic Games were held in Mexico City in 1968, while the first offender, Hans-Gunnar Lilenwall, was disqualified. The participant of the modern pentathlon competitions drank beer before the competitions, which was discovered when analyzing his samples. It is interesting that the first participants in the doping tests in history were not people, but animals – horses at the races. It is known that in the 19th century horses were watered with wine or whiskey before going to a race; coca leaves and opium were also used. The first test of racehorses for stimulants was carried out in Austria in 1911.

Who are the judges?

Today, the center of most news about doping and related conflicts is the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA ). The organization appeared in the fall of 1999, it arose with the support of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The reason was another sports scandal: during the Tour de France bicycle race, representatives of several teams found large reserves of prohibited substances – the hormone erythropoietin, amphetamines and steroids. Later, several riders admitted that they used dope.

WADA conducts doping control of athletes during important competitions and in between, annually updates the list of prohibited drugs and methods, and also monitors the implementation of the provisions of the World Anti-Doping Code, adopted in 2003. The Agency finances research on illicit substances and the development of new methods for their search. Another feature of WADA is the accreditation of anti-doping laboratories. The organization may suspend the license if it detects a malfunction in the laboratory.


Who takes doping tests and how? This is done by representatives of national anti-doping agencies or organizations that have entered into an agreement with WADA and the International Federation for the sport. For example, the Swedish company ITDM (International Doping Tests & Management) is testing athletes around the world.

During the period of competition it is not difficult to take samples from the athlete; his schedule of training and free time is known. However, there is out-of-competition control during training or rest. Find an athlete helps the ADAMS (Anti-Doping Administration & Management System) – An online database in which athletes independently enter data on where they will be in the near future. The schedule is drawn up for the next three months. It seems that it is difficult to “predict” your plans for several months ahead, but not for professional athletes. Their schedule is already scheduled by the hour: the dates of competitions, training camps and training are known in advance. If the plans suddenly change, the athlete himself edits his schedule in the personal account of the program – you need to notify the doping officers at least a day before departure. This can be done both from a computer and from a mobile phone.

ADAMS allows doping officers to find an athlete at any time: according to anti-doping rules, some checks must take place suddenly. You can’t refuse the test, otherwise the sample will be registered as positive. However, testing can be postponed for some time if there is a good reason: for example, an athlete is breastfeeding a child.

Urine is usually taken for analysis during “sudden” control – blood can only be donated in a room specially adapted for this, and the doping officer must receive a special certificate. A urine sample in the presence of an athlete is divided into two parts: sample A and sample B. The first is passed for analysis, and the second is kept sealed. It can be opened at the request of the athlete if the results of the analysis of sample A cause suspicion. This procedure is carried out by the same laboratory that checked the first part of the sample, but another specialist is working. The athlete himself pays for the autopsy of sample B, it costs $ 800-1000. Typically, samples are stored from three months to ten years: sometimes an old sample can be rechecked if a new method for identifying a specific substance appears.

What is doping?

Most often, chemical methods are associated with the concept of “doping”: the use of substances that can improve an athlete’s results. Most of these substances were initially developed for medical purposes as medicines for various diseases.

The WADA list of drugs includes three degrees of prohibition. The first, most extensive part – substances and methods that can never be used: neither outside the competition, nor during them. By default, this list includes not only many traditional products, but also all “designer” drugs – analogues of existing illegal substances with minor changes in the formula, making the drug harder to detect with modern testing methods. Together with them, medicines that are at the stage of clinical research are prohibited: it is not known what effect they can have on the athlete’s body. This group of compounds received the number S0 in the list.

In addition to chemical methods of stimulation, violating athletes use physical methods – these methods are also prohibited. These include various blood manipulations, including transfusion of a pre-prepared sample of his own blood to an athlete. An additional dose of blood increases the number of red blood cells, which means that the muscles receive more oxygen. The blood of another person may work this way, but athletes use their own to avoid incompatibility reactions. “Physical” deception is also possible with urine samples: there are cases when athletes put containers with clean urine into the body.

Gene doping is also completely prohibited – “non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements or gene expression modulators that have the ability to enhance athletic performance”. Such techniques have so far been little studied and, according to most expert doctors, are ineffective. Perhaps in the future, the use of genetic engineering will allow violators not to inject illegal drugs into the body, it will be enough to “reprogram” some of the body’s own cells and make them produce the right substance. Such attempts are already known: for example, repoxygen, a gene therapy for anemia sufferers, enhances erythropoietin synthesis. In the early 2000s, he was used by German coach Thomas Springstein – his charges were disqualified, and in 2003, gene doping was officially banned.

It is strictly forbidden!

Under the number S1 in the list are anabolic agents. From year to year they were leaders in the list of the most popular types of doping; almost half of the violators took them. These substances contribute to the processes of anabolism – the synthesis of complex compounds from simpler components. Substances from the S1 group accelerate the formation of complex molecules in the body, including the synthesis of proteins, fats and nucleic acids. All these molecules serve as a “building material” for muscles and other body tissues.

Many hormones help speed up muscle growth, including stanozolol, an anabolic that is popular with athletes. Once in the cell nucleus, it enhances the synthesis of many compounds, including DNA, RNA, and structural proteins. Stanozolol contributes to the accumulation of calcium in the bones, strengthens them, reduces the risk of allergic reactions of the body, and also accelerates the synthesis of erythropoietin – another hormone doping that stimulates the formation of red blood cells. Stanozolol, unlike testosterone, is considered a hormone with milder androgenic activity, that is, it does not so much contribute to the development of male secondary sexual characteristics: facial hair growth, baldness, and low voice. An excess of androgens in women can lead to menstrual irregularities, partial atrophy of the uterus and ovaries, as well as infertility,

In second place among the most popular drugs are hormones and metabolic modulators, group S4. The most popular among them are drugs that can block the conversion of other hormones to estrogens, for example tamoxifen – one of the best-selling drugs for treating breast cancer. Taking additional doses of male sex hormones, including testosterone, can lead to an excess of hormone in the body. The body does not cope with the processing of such quantities of substance, and part of the hormone goes along a detour – it undergoes an aromatization reaction and, as a result, with the help of the aromatase enzyme turns into a female sex hormone. In the male body, its excess leads to the fact that muscle volume is reduced, and the volume of adipose tissue, on the contrary, is growing. Feminization also reduces libido and increases the risk of depression.

Group S2 includes peptide hormones and growth factors. The most popular of these is erythropoietin, a kidney hormone that controls the formation of red blood cells (red blood cells). Normally, it is actively produced during blood loss, anemia and a lack of oxygen. Erythropoietin as a dope allows you to saturate the blood with oxygen and, accordingly, increase the flow of oxygen to the muscles. The use and sale of erythropoietin at the Tour de France bicycle race has become one of the main reasons for the appearance of WADA .

Beta-2 agonists are assigned to the S3 group: in medicine, they relieve asthma symptoms. These substances stimulate β2-adrenergic receptors located on the muscle cells of the respiratory system and are sensitive to adrenaline. Interacting with receptors, beta-2 agonists expand the bronchi, artificially opening a “second wind”. In addition, they promote stamina and make it easier to carry loads. Alas, these substances are addictive: over time, the athlete has to increase the dose, and this leads to arrhythmia and other heart problems.

Also, athletes should not take substances that can mask the use of doping and faster remove the remaining drugs from the body – they belong to group S5. Diuretics (diuretics) are most often referred to them. In addition, these tools help to quickly lose weight: they are used in those sports where there is a division into weight categories. Another of their tasks is to “dry” the body, that is, to give the muscles a relief.

You can if you are careful enough

The second part of the list is substances allowed out of competition. This group includes stimulants (S6), including amphetamines, cocaine and strychnine. Stimulants are not always used as “recreational” drugs: sometimes they are part of drugs. For example, amphetamines are taken by people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Group S7 – drugs, most often components of pain medications (morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone). S8 – cannabinoids, including the well-known marijuana component Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Steroid hormones glucocorticoids, which can both reduce inflammation and make the athlete more resilient, got to S9.

The third part that completes the list of prohibited drugs – substances that can not be used only in certain sports. In 2018, only beta-blockers (P1) remained on this list, used, for example, for arrhythmias and a persistent increase in blood pressure. These drugs are prohibited in motorsport, skiing, snowboarding, shooting competitions, including archery. Until 2018, alcohol was included in this group, but today its use is regulated not by WADA , but by international federations of these sports.

Passport Login

In addition to traditional tests, there is another doping control method: an athlete’s biological passport. This technology appeared at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. “Biological passport” refers to an individual athlete record in the WADA electronic database . It stores the results of doping tests, sorted by the conditions under which the samples were taken: during the competition, during long breaks between competitions, on vacation. Including, if there is such a possibility, samples are taken during a stay in the mountains – rarefied mountain air saturates the blood with red blood cells, and it carries oxygen more actively. Then, a special computer algorithm compares the results of the analyzes and calculates the normal level of certain substances in the athlete’s body in different situations.

The program builds several graphs for each substance. It counts the middle level and the corridor of upper and lower values. A sharp change in the results or going beyond the corridor is an occasion to carefully check the athlete. His data is sent to three experts, without indicating the name of the athlete. If all three agree that such indicators indicate violations, the result becomes additional evidence of the use of doping.

The passport consists of two modules: steroid and hematological. The first contains information on the markers of the presence of anabolic steroids found in athlete’s urine. The second module contains information about the mechanism of oxygen metabolism in the body. For this, the results of blood tests for the content of hemoglobin, red blood cells and their precursors of reticulocytes and others are used. WADA also developed the third module – endocrinology. With its help, it is possible to identify the illegal use of growth factors. The biological passport does not replace traditional doping control by the method of searching for prohibited substances in samples, but supplements it.

Food for brain

Most often, they say about doping in connection with sports that require certain physical characteristics – strength, endurance, and dexterity. However, the problem of artificial “amplifiers” did not pass over intellectual sports, including chess, as well as e-sports. For example, participants in all chess competitions held under the auspices of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) are required to provide samples for doping testing, if required by representatives of the controlling organization. This rule was introduced after the International Olympic Committee recognized FIDE as an international organization of a sport that is not part of the Olympic program.

What means are forbidden to chess players? Firstly, all drugs that are on the current list of WADA bans . Especially often chess samples are checked for amphetamines, certain concentrations of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, as well as for modafinil. This is an analeptic with a strong stimulating effect, it is usually taken to treat sudden drowsiness with narcolepsy. Caffeine and codeine (an opium alkaloid, a component of some cough suppressants) are not prohibited, but are controlled by WADA .

These drugs are the most popular doping in chess. The study confirmed that modafinil did indeed improve player performance. The methylphenidate stimulator, known under the trade name Ritalin, had the same effect. The experiment was attended by representatives of several German chess unions, who played a total of 3059 15-minute games.

Chess players are joined by cybersportsmen. In 2015, Electronic Sports League , one of the largest European e-sports leagues , announced that it would develop a doping test procedure for competitors. The league made this decision after one of the professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players said in an interview that he and his teammates were taking amphetamine adderall before tournaments.

Or maybe allow it?

Despite the enormous efforts to combat doping, from time to time you can hear a different point of view: if the use of illegal substances is inevitable, maybe it is worth legalizing them? Moreover, new records rarely appear today, and more and more scientists say that the limit of human capabilities in sports is about to be reached. Perhaps in a few decades only owners of rare mutations, such as the Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta, can become “pure” champions. He was found to have hereditary-family erythrocytosis – a condition in which there is much more hemoglobin and red blood cells in the blood than normal. This feature allowed the athlete’s blood to carry more oxygen and improved its results.

How in this situation to keep big sport as spectacular and exciting as at the dawn of the modern Olympic Games? How to continue to adhere to the Olympic motto: “Faster, higher, stronger!”, If the potential of natural records is practically exhausted? How can athletes cope with the exorbitant loads that a competitive race requires? Opponents doping insist that it kills the idea of “fair play» ( fair-play ) – the code of ethics of the world of sports. According to him, at the start, all athletes should have equal chances to win. According to opponents of artificial “improvers”, the doping race threatens the social functions of sports: to allow cheating and neglect of health in competitions means to allow them in other areas of life.


This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.

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