It’s just not natural

From sheep's testicles to strychnine the use of performance-enhancing substances in sport has a long, if dishonourable, history. Cathal Sheerin reports

August 7, 2008
6 min read

Athletes have always sought to gain an edge on their fellow competitors by the use of dietary supplements and other methods. At the first Olympics in 776 BC, the ancient Greeks used oral supplements made from cola plants and hashish, as well as cactus-based stimulants. They also ate sheep’s testicles as an early form of testosterone supplementation. Later, Roman athletes opted for sexual abstinence and a more masochistic method of performance-enhancement – they had their servants whip them with rhododendron branches until they bled, thereby preparing them for the pain of competition.

During the 17th century, methods of performance-enhancement were equally bloody, but more invasive, as runners had their spleens removed in the belief that it would increase their speed: the operation sped a fifth of them to early graves. In the late 1800s, athletes experimented with ether-coated sugar cubes and wine laced with cocaine to offset the pain and fatigue of competition.

The growth of international competition gave extra impetus to those seeking an advantage over their fellow athletes. Most famously, America’s Thomas Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon dosed with raw egg, strychnine and brandy, all administered to him during the race. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he collapsed on crossing the finish line and remained unconscious for several hours – but he still got his gold medal.

In 1928, the International Amateur Athletics Federation banned the use of stimulating substances in sport for the first time, but lack of any testing made the ban ineffective. Drug tests were first introduced at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, the year after the English cyclist Tom Simpson died during the 1967 Tour de France. He had taken a concoction of speed and cognac.

By the 1970s, anabolic steroids were all the rage, especially in strength and power events. With the help of an organised system of steroid use, East German women dominated swimming for nearly two decades – at the first world swimming championships in 1973 they won 10 of the 14 gold medals available, and set eight world records. Blood doping was also becoming popular by the 1970s, particularly among cyclists. The removal and subsequent re-infusion of the athlete’s blood boosted his red blood cell count and thereby increased stamina and performance. The same effect was also achieved by the use of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) or by using altitude tents.

The late twentieth century saw the emergence of creatine – used to boost anaerobic power and cut recovery time – as the legal performance-enhancing substance of choice. The illegal performance booster of choice became human growth hormone (HGH), which is thought to increase muscle size and red blood cell count, making the athlete more powerful and less susceptible to tiredness.

The future of performance-enhancing procedures lies in gene doping. Although genetically modified athletes are still some way off, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania has already experimented on mice, isolating the gene for muscle growth and producing rodents that are 50 percent stronger than normal mice.

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State-of-the-art performance enhancement

Hypoxic chambers, also known as altitude chambers, are enclosed sleeping spaces that simulate a high altitude atmosphere by lowering the oxygen concentration in the air. As the body adapts to these conditions, it produces more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The increase of oxygen supplied to working muscles improves the athlete’s performance. The effect is similar to that produced by the use of illegal blood-doping. There was an increased demand for these chambers following the introduction of a test for the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) in 2000.

The chambers are popular with endurance athletes, such as marathoner Paula Radcliffe, and former Tour cyclist Lance Armstrong. But there have been concerns about the use of these aids; use of hypoxic chambers can thicken an athlete’s blood and increase the risk of thrombosis, and at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, competitors were forbidden from taking the chambers into the Olympic village on the grounds of health and safety.

In 2004, an Auckland University of Technology study found that the use of altitude tents increased endurance running performance by one to two percent. A one percent increase in speed endurance during the men’s 10,000 metre final at the Athens Olympics would have shot fifth placed Haile Gebrselassie to first.

Men’s 10,000m results, Athens 2004

1. Kenenisa Bekele (Eth) 27:05.10s

2. Sileshi Sihine (Eth) 27:09.39s

3. Zersenay Tadesse (Eri) 27:22.57s

4. Boniface Kiprop (Uga) 27:25.48s

5. Haile Gebrselassie (Eth) 27:27.70s

6. John Cheruiyot Korir (Ken) 27:41.91s

7. Moses Mosop (Ken) 27:46.61s

8. Ismail Sghyr (Fra) 27:57.09s

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In February 2008, Speedo, using NASA technology, produced a swimsuit called the LZR Racer that helps a swimmer to go faster. It is made of a special fabric that reduces muscle oscillation, skin vibration, and drag. It also incorporates a corset-like core stabiliser that helps a swimmer maintain the correct position in the water. The Australian Institute of Sport has performed a series of tests on the swimsuit, and found that it increases a swimmer’s speed over sprints by four per cent. During March 2008, its debut month, swimmers wearing the suit broke 17 world records. When seen in the context of the results of the women’s 50m freestyle final in the Athens Olympics in 2004, the implications are huge. In this race the time margin separating the gold medal from last position was six-tenths of a second. A four percent increase in speed would have last placed Flavia Cazziolato finishing in gold medal position.

Women’s 50m freestyle swim results, Athens 2004

1. Inge de Bruijn (Ned) Time:24.58

2. Malia Metella (Fra) Time:24.89

3. Lisbeth Lenton (Aus) Time:24.91

4. Therese Alshammar (Swe) Time:24.93

5. Kara Lynn Joyce (USA) Time:25.00

6. Michelle Engelsman (Aus) Time:25.06

7. Jenny Thompson (USA) Time:25.11

8. Flavia Cazziolato (Bra) Time:25.20

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Creatine occurs naturally in the body and is used by the muscles in energy production. It is widely used by athletes, including British sprinter Craig Pickering, because it increases muscular strength, delays fatigue, and promotes faster recovery. You can increase your creatine intake by eating more meat and fish, but athletes favour oral creatine supplements as the most efficient way of increasing their intake – 20 to 30g per day is the average dosage, and is equivalent to eating about 5kg of raw steak every day.

A variety of tests have proved the performance-enhancing qualities of creatine supplementation. In 2001, Norwegian researchers found that a group of male sprinters taking 20g of creatine daily for five days made significant improvements in their running speeds, reducing the average 100 metre time for the group from 11.68 seconds to 11.59 seconds – nine-hundredths of a second. The findings gain significance when we look at the results of the Men’s 100m sprint final in Athens 2004, where the time-gap separating first place from fifth place was nine-hundredths of a second. The gap between gold and bronze medals was only two-hundredths of a second.

Short-term side effects can include muscle cramps, vomiting and dehydration. Long-term side effects are unknown.


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