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Has Doping Harmed Athletic Performance?

Has performance increased since the introduction of systematic doping?

Has performance increased since the introduction of systematic doping? Credit: urfinguss/iStock

By Aaron Hermann

An investigation of sporting performance over the past 125 years throws into doubt the assumption that doping improves athletic performance. Could it even have jeopardised it?

Doping in sport has been a problem for more than a century. Today it seems that there’s a new doping revelation each year.

Fresh in the minds of sports fans is the systematic doping by the cycling team of multiple Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. Stories of systematic doping, undetected drugs and corruption throughout the team have resounded through the minds of sports fans. Even cycling commentators who had adamantly supported Lance’s claims of racing clean found themselves backpedalling to distance themselves from their statements.

What this case showed the world is that doping is a resounding success. But is it?

The common belief, not only in scientific circles but in the general community, is that if an athlete dopes there will be an improvement in their performance. All in all, this idea is well-founded. Numerous doping scandals have showed to the world the effects of doping on the human body. State-sponsored doping in East Germany is used as the benchmark to show just how well-structured doping can work. Other cases such as the Chinese swimmers in the 1990s and the investigation of the Festina team after the 1998 Tour de France further this belief that doping benefits performance. Because of this, a considerable amount of research over the past 50 years has focused on how doping improves performance, which drugs aid in performance boosts and how science can be used to detect and combat doping.

Is this always the case? How have sporting results changed over the past 125 years, and how has doping impacted them?

Sports today are different to any point in human history, especially the early part of the 20th century. Advancements in technology, equipment and sportswear, training and science, the move to professionalism, and the introduction of systematic doping all mean that performance should have increased dramatically.

Our research goal was to investigate the belief that doping improves performances and that this can be seen in the history of sporting results. To this end we aimed to assess the performance of athletes over the past 125 years to discover the true effects of doping on the top results in sports. The question we asked was whether performance has increased since the introduction of systematic doping.

We looked at both winter and summer sports to try to get an overall picture of the situation, examining strength sports such as shot-put, discus and javelin, endurance sports such as the marathon and long distance running, speed and agility sports such as 100-metre sprints, and winter sports such as ski jumping and speed skating.

We then collected data available from international sporting bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Association of Athletics Federations, about top performance times, distances and other results over the past 125+ years. These included gold medal times, world record times and personal best times of top athletes in each sport.

Information about any doping convictions or detections was also collected, and the athletes split into two categories. Those with no doping histories were put in the “non-doped” category while those with known doping histories were put in the “doped” category.

With these categories we ran a series of tests. First, athletes’ best times, distance and other results (depending on sport) were plotted on a graph to see how the averages compared between groups over the years. Next we graphed changes over time of gold medal and world record results. Two years were selected for the comparison: 1932 (when steroids were discovered, so doping could become systematic) and 1967 (when the IOC introduced anti-doping measures). We then analysed this information using a series of statistical methods.

The results before 1932 (and/or 1967) were then compared with the results after this date to see the effects of doping. Some amazing findings arose from this analysis.

First, the comparison of results between doped and non-doped athletes gave some very unexpected results. When we analysed the average times of these athletes over the years we found no significant difference between each group. In some sports, like the 100-metre sprints, the average times of top runners were exactly the same in each category. In other sports, the results of doped athletes appeared lower.

This indicated one of two things: doping is not aiding performance, or sporting results are impacted by athletes who are doping but not being caught (i.e. some athletes in the non-doped category may in fact be doping).

To clarify this we decided it was necessary to look at changes in records over the past 125+ years. The results of this study were as interesting as the first.

We found that similar results were obtained when we used 1932 as a point of comparison. When we extrapolated the trends before 1932 to the modern day, we found that athletes now are doing much worse than they should. This is especially surprising given advancements in training, diet, technology and the fact that sports today are professional.

We found these same trends across many different sports. Strength sports were the most obvious of these, and show the biggest extremes in differences. Shot-put was one example where performance today is catastrophically worse than it should be. It could be the case that the limit of human ability has been reached, but then we would not see a worsening of results unless an external factor was playing a role. Rather, we would expect that results would continue to improve to a plateau after which point results level off because athletes would have reached the limit of their natural abilities.

Then again, with advancements in genetic engineering and cybernetics there is an argument that we will be continuing to see improvements long into the future. What we are instead seeing is that results are getting worse in some sports.

Why this the case? Why are the pre-1932 results basically “better” than the modern results?

There are a number of possible reasons, but the most interesting explanation is that doping, as it is practised today, may be harming results.

Doping is currently illegal and has been for about half a century. Any athletes caught doping risk a fine, ban or even total expulsion from their sport. These consequences were created as a means to deter doping.

The unfortunate reality is that it has made doping more secretive and more hidden. Athletes now are very careful if they decide to dope. This has led to a curious phenomenon… reliable information about doping and its impacts on an athlete’s body and performance is harder to obtain.

Since doping is illegal, athletes are unlikely to approach other athletes or doctors and ask: “I want to dope. Can you tell me what will work for me?” The consequences of this could be catastrophic for their career.

Instead, athletes are trying to find alternative methods of collecting information. They may be browsing the internet for information, which exposes them to a lot of misleading or erroneous information, or randomly trying an assortment of drugs, which results in a trial-and-error system under which they will at least occasionally harm their performance.

All in all, the athlete may be using the wrong agents, which will result in a performance decrease. For example, imagine a marathon runner who has chosen to dope but is unsure what to use and has selected a steroid that increases muscle mass – and hence his weight will increase. Long distance running requires primarily stamina, not power, so carrying additional weight will harm performance. Just imagine a body-builder trying to run 40 km in world-class time.

Even if an athlete has time and reads through the vast scientific information on the topic there is another problem. For each piece of research concluding that a drug acts in one way for performance, there is another piece of research that contradicts it. And since medical research is very general in nature, it looks at the average effects across a whole population and does not take into consideration individual effects on each different person. So even if an athlete finds a drug that on average improves performance, it may not have the same effect on them as each person’s body reacts differently to different medicines. Indeed it may harm their personal performance.

This does not discredit prior research into anti-doping. There is considerable evidence to show that if an athlete is receiving structured, scientifically backed support, where all the effects of each agent on their body are known and understood, then doping will increase performance.

The problem is that performance-decreasing effects may occur when unknown or incorrect drugs are used. If the athlete is able to find an unethical scientist or doctor who is willing to break their Hippocratic Oath to give the support they need to understand how each drug affects their body, then they may be able to find the right drug to boost performance. This has been shown many times in sporting history; the actions of sports scientists and doctors who decide to break laws and moral standards and help athletes cheat are able to help boost performance through drugs. Overall, the moral of the story is that if you are going to do something, do it properly or suffer the consequences.

One interesting additional discovery we made was that winter sports did not show such a difference between pre-1932 results and modern results. Rather, current results in winter sports such as speed skating and ski jumping are what we would expect from those set previously. This may be because doping may be less common in these sports.

Many winter sports involve a combination of style points, times and skills, as well as stamina, strength and agility. Because of this, athletes may feel that doping may not improve their chance of winning, either because of the various different skills needed or because of the role of judging or other external factors beyond their control. This means that there seems to be less doping in some winter sports, so the results over time are as expected.

So what did our research conclude? First, many athletes may be doping but are simply not being caught, and this is skewing the sporting results.

Second, doping is successful and effective when it’s supported by unethical and immoral scientists, doctors and teams where the effects on an individual can be monitored and an individually tailored doping program created.

Third, uneducated and haphazard doping practices by athletes are actually harming athletes’ sporting results. The impacts of this can be felt in more areas of the sporting world. If performances of athletes are being harmed, then the spectacle of sports is being harmed, which in turn may harm revenue as people turn away from the sport. This may then cause the sporting teams to suffer and they may need to undertake cost-cutting measures, which impacts players and further impacts results.

Doping is therefore harming sports in ways beyond issues of fairness, equality and health. It is harming the future careers of athletes and their teams. In the long run doping hurts everyone, including oneself.

Aaron Hermann lectures at The University of Adelaide’s School of Medical Sciences.