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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsThe use of chemistry in sport is most controversial when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. Perceived benefits to athletes who use these drugs include an increase in strength, endurance, aggressiveness and enhanced concentration. Prohibited substances can therefore give athletes an unfair competitive advantage, or harm their health, and their use is contrary to the spirit of sport. Banned drugs in sport include stimulants, diuretics and most famously of all, anabolic steroids. The use of banned drugs affects nearly all sports and to help catch cheating athletes, random drug tests have proved to be a useful weapon. Classes of banned drugs in sport include stimulants, diuretics and most famously of all, anabolic steroids.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 secondsBack in 1988, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was dethroned after breaking the 100 metres world record because the anabolic steroid stanozolol was found in his urine. Athletes have taken anabolic steroids in particular, because they work for a long time in the body. More recently, the steroids THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) and DMT (desoxymethyltestosterone) have hit the headlines. Subtle structural differences can have important biological effects. For example, in THG, having an ethyl group, rather than methyl group at position 17, allows it to pass through the liver and into the bloodstream without being deactivated, so it can be administered orally.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 secondsThey were the first 'designer steroids' to be marketed as performance-enhancing drugs to both athletes and bodybuilders - they have a similar impact to testosterone, increasing strength, muscle bulk and stamina - and were designed, synthesized, and distributed only to beat the standard drug testing methods. These counterfeit steroids were identified by isolation, their structures were determined using analytical methods, and finally, authentic compounds were prepared in the lab and compared to the counterfeit steroid. To detect the presence of banned drugs in an athlete's blood or urine, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry is often used. In the GC-mass spectrum spectrum of DMT particularly prominent and characteristic peaks at m/z 143 and 130 are found, which allows its identification.

Skip to 2 minutes and 30 secondsHowever, this method cannot be used to identify THG, as this compound decomposes on heating in the GC-MS spectrometer, and it remained undetected by sport doping control urine tests for several years, until a specific method was established in 2003. Natural human proteins are another class of high-profile banned drugs - for example, EPO (erythropoietin) stimulates the body to make more red blood cells, which carry oxygen. EPO is made of 165 amino acids and four carbohydrate groups (or sugars). Athletes who use it get an endurance boost, which makes it popular in sports like cycling, cross-country skiing, and distance running. Alternatively, HGH (human growth hormone), composed of 191 amino acids, help athletes build muscle and bone, adding strength and power.

Skip to 3 minutes and 28 secondsAs these proteins occur naturally, their detection is a challenge and relies on techniques that tell the difference between the natural and artificially introduced versions - for example, the Lasne test exploits subtle differences in the carbohydrate groups present within human EPO and the banned EPO protein, which is made from hamster cells. Stimulants act on the central nervous system to speed up parts of the brain and body - adrenaline or epinephrine is an example of a naturally occurring stimulant in the body. Some athletes may use stimulants, like adrenaline, to help increase alertness, reduce tiredness, lose weight, and also increase their competitiveness and aggressiveness.

Skip to 4 minutes and 14 secondsFamously, in the 1994 football World Cup, Diego Maradona, was banned from playing because he tested positive for ephedrine, which has a very similar structure to adrenaline. Diuretics, sometimes called water pills, increase the rate of production of urine, which may dilute and mask the presence of a banned substance in the urine. Diuretics, including furosemide, are called 'masking agents' as these compounds are taken with the purpose of hiding or masking the presence of specific illegal drugs that are screened for doping testing. As they cause dehydration, they can help athletes to lose weight rapidly.

Banned drugs in sports

Using drugs to cheat in sport is not new, but it is becoming more effective. Despite the health risks, and despite the regulating bodies’ attempts to eliminate drugs from sport, the use of illegal substances is still occurring. So is cheating here to stay? Drugs are against the rules, but we define the rules of sport – if we made drugs legal and freely available, there would be no cheating.

Arguments for legalising performance-enhancing drugs include audiences bearing able to see the best performances possible – as athletes approach the limit of what can be achieved, further improvements require performance-enhancers. Clothing and equipment are being specially designed for athletes, and some argue that there should be no distinctive between the equipment and an athlete’s body. Others argue that drug testing does not work - most athletes are relatively unlikely to ever undergo testing and so it does not always catch the guilty.

Arguments against mention the health risk to athletes, and that allowing drugs promotes an unhealthy behaviour and that the athlete safety must be our prime concern. Some say that taking part is what counts, not the winning, and that drugs are against the spirit of sport, that celebrates fair play and honesty. Presumably this would then lead on to drug advertising and sponsorship?

So, what do you think - should performance enhancing drugs be accepted in sports?


We have seen the importance of using mass spectrometry to analyse organic compounds, including identifying banned drugs, so why not have a go at analysing mass spectra in the extension activity below. A bit like (the fictional private detective) Sherlock Holmes you will be identifying ‘clues’ in the spectra to identify the ‘culprit’ (the organic compound).

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This video is from the free online course:

Exploring Everyday Chemistry

University of York

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