An Open Letter to Russia (and a Science Lesson on Steroids)

April 10, 2018

 

Oh, Russia. Why do you care so much about the Olympics? I mean, the Games are cool and competitive, but when your state sponsors a doping program to ensure dominance―and forty-five of your athletes get caught during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics―you know you’ve crossed a line. One might assume that after the Russian Olympic Committee was banned from this year’s Winter Games, Russian athletes (allowed to compete for the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” team) would steer clear of outlawed substances, but apparently this was not the case: two Russian athletes, Alexander Krushelnitskiy (also spelled Aleksandr Krushelnitchkii) and Nadezhda Sergeeva, tested positive for the banned heart drug trimetazidine and meldonium, respectively. A Slovenian hockey player named Ziga Jeglic and a Japanese speedskater Kei Saito were also sent home from Pyeongchang for doping.

 

There’s a common misconception that athletes dope to move faster or become stronger. “What athletes really go for,” according to Herman Pontzer, an associate professor at Hunter College who studies energetics, “are drugs that fool their bodies to keep them from shutting down in the face of overtraining.” After a certain amount of exertion, our brains send our tired arms and legs signals that cause them to exert less or switch off, which most of us have probably experienced to some degree. But anabolic steroids and amphetamines change people’s perception of fatigue, so they don’t realize how tired their bodies are. This allows athletes to train harder and longer.

 

For a substance or technique to be banned from athletic competition, it usually has to meet two of three criteria: it enhances performance, potentially harms health, and violates the “spirit” of the sport. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) today prohibits a couple hundred performance-enhancing drugs and methods, which makes it hard to catch athletes in the act of doping: there are so many substances to test for, so many athletes to test, a narrow window to detect some drugs, and new ones being introduced all the time. Biology makes things difficult as well. One common test for testosterone steroids measures the body’s ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, but because people have natural variations in their hormones, WADA allows T/E ratios as high as 4/1. Thus, some athletes can take just enough testosterone to enhance their performance while staying under the legal limit.

 

The Russia doping scandals are mind-bogglingly (and, in a weird way, amusingly) extensive, but plenty of non-Russian athletes find performance-enhancing drugs tempting too. Really, it’s unlikely that doping will ever be completely eradicated from the Olympic Games, but with recent reactionary crackdowns by WADA, one hopes that they’re getting more fair.

 

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