Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

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.

—————

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

———————-

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

——————–

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself