Start main page content

Beating the ʻpharmaceutical arms race’ in sports

- Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Drugs in sport is eroding the public credibility of many sports heroes’ superhuman performances. Can trust be restored?

Drugs in sport | Curiosity 16: #Drugs ©

The scepticism with which the recent slew of field and track world records was greeted revealed the broken trust between athletes and their public.

In the last few elite Diamond League athletics meetings, the women’s 1 500m and 5 000m times, and the men’s 3 000m steeplechase and two-mile milestones, have all been smashed.

But praise for Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon, who broke both the women’s records, Ethiopia’s Lamecha Girma, who won the 3 000m steeplechase, and Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s two-mile achievements was lacklustre, considering these were essentially superhuman feats.

Kipyegon broke her records in successive weeks while Girma and Ingebrigtsen’s marks were established after 19 and 25 years respectively, the Norwegian running two back-to-back sub-four-minute miles en route to his record.

Renowned South African sports scientist Ross Tucker spoke for everyone on his podcast – The Real Science of Sport – speculating that the new records were the result of more than just the advances in sports science and shoe technology.

Tour de farce?

Ever since Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, Lance Armstrong and others turned the Tour de France into a pharmaceutical arms race on wheels, the sporting public has struggled to believe in the authenticity of these jaw-dropping achievements.

The suspicion is a pity, because past performances by Girma, Kipyegon and Ingebrigtsen suggested that they each had the capacity to break records. Former Lions’ team doctor and Wits University sport and exercise medicine physician, Professor Jon Patricios says that given athletics’ doping history our sense of disbelief is to be expected.

“It’s a real issue and Ross is right to ask the question,” Patricios explains. “What he’s doing is comparing trends, and when they skyrocket, you’re entitled to be cynical. Athletes will argue that training techniques have improved but who knows? Once you see trends like these, our cynicism is not misplaced.”

Ever since marathon runner Thomas Hicks nearly died from a cocktail of brandy and strychnine he’d taken in the hope of enhancing his performance in 1904, administrators and athletes have been locked in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse over the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

School boys on ‘Roids”

Today, questions are still being asked. “It’s reasonable to ask if the cheats are still getting one up on the authorities,” says Patricios. “At high levels, including in rugby, where there’s regular and random testing in and out of competition, the testing protocols are quite tight,” he says.

“But I fear that in less high-profile sports, at amateur and school level, we’re losing the battle. We can see this for example from the numbers that are coming through from tournaments like rugby’s Craven Week, where there were 10 positive tests last year. This is astronomically high and can be attributed to the lack of randomised testing and regulations of minors and the need for parental consent. I have no doubt that the use is more prevalent than we think.”

Patricios’ concerns around the use of performance-enhancing drugs at school rugby level are supported by the revelation in a BBC article three years ago that 21 youngsters in South Africa tested positive for steroids between 2014 and 2018.

One especially notorious case was that of former Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Affies) student, Salmon van Huyssteen, who was handed a two-year ban after it was found that he was administered a Nandrolone injection by his mother in 2012.

In the stampede to create test tube Springboks from a school system that borders on professional in its competitiveness (a number of coaches have left the professional ranks to coach at school level because it is more lucrative), the health risks of taking these drugs are all but ignored.

“Steroids affect many systems in the body. Blood pressure, changes to the heart, sugar and cholesterol levels, potential infertility, damage to the liver and kidneys, as well as psychological damage. Almost every aspect of the user’s physiology can be adversely affected,” says Patricios.

It doesn’t help that drug bans in South Africa have only the “nuisance value” of speed humps on a racetrack. Van Huyssteen, for instance, made his return on the Blue Bulls’ under-19 bench the day after his ban expired.

Former Springbok wing Aphiwe Dyantyi, who was banned in 2019 after testing positive for a bodybuilder’s cocktail of three banned drugs, Metandienone, Methyltestosterone and LGD-4033, was similarly greeted on his return from his four-year hiatus when his new contract with the Sharks was announced.

Dyantyi’s ban only officially ended on August 13, but the deal was all but done a year ago. 

The prevailing public sentiment was to hail the return of an all-conquering hero because of Dyanti’s exciting talent and because he always denied knowingly taking the drugs.

However, to cynics, Dyantyi had an improbable rise from not even playing first team rugby at school to Springbok status and being voted World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2018. His lack of physicality at school hinted to the fact he would have needed help to reach his 90kg weight at the time of his ban.

The doping scourge has even implicated the Kenyans, whose incredible distance running exploits were always put down to living and training at high altitude, hard work and ugali, their staple version of mealie pap.

In 2022, no fewer than 45 Kenyan athletes were sanctioned for the use of Erythropoietin (EPO), which increases red blood cell production. When you think about it, living at altitude, which also elevates your red blood cell count because of the thinner air, is great cover for EPO.

Biotech for the win

The cat-and-mouse game between authorities and athletes is being fought along technological lines, with the establishment’s greatest strides being the introduction in 2009 of the biological passport – a baseline snapshot of an athlete’s physiological make-up which is used as a point of reference should there be deviation in future in biological markers.

“But remember that technology isn’t one-sided,” warns Patricios. “It doesn’t just favour the testers. Those who would use science to cheat also have technology at their disposal.”

A great example of the sophistication the authorities are up against was legendary American distance runner Alberto Salazars, when he was head coach of the Nike Oregon Project, which gave the world Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, among others.

Salazar, who won the New York, Boston and Comrades marathons – was given a four-year ban in 2019 for trafficking testosterone, administering athletes prohibited IV infusions and encouraging them to take prescription medication such as the thyroid hormone whose side effects include enhanced performance.

All we can do is marvel as sporting records are broken and hope that they have not been fuelled by performance improving drugs.

  • Simnikiwe Xabanisa is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 16th issue, themed: #Drugs, where we highlight the diversity, scope, and multi-dimensional nature of drug-related research at Wits University.