Skip main navigation

Should we legalise performance-enhancing drugs in sport?

Using drugs to cheat in sport is not new, but is becoming more effective. Here, we discuss whether we should legalise banned drugs in sport.
5.8
The 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.
54.5
Back 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.
97.7
They 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.
150.4
However, 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.
208.4
As 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.
254.3
Famously, 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.

Despite the health risks, and despite the regulating bodies’ attempts to eliminate drugs from sport, the use of illegal substances is still occurring.

Is cheating here to stay? Drugs are against the rules, but we define the rules of the sport – if we made drugs legal and freely available, there would be no cheating.

Arguments for legalising performance-enhancing drugs

Arguments for legalising performance-enhancing drugs include audiences being 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 distinction 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 (fewer than 2% give a positive result).

Arguments against legalising performance-enhancing drugs

Arguments against legalising performance-enhancing drugs mention the health risk to athletes, that allowing drugs promotes unhealthy behaviour and that 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?

Analysing the evidence

We have seen the importance of using mass spectrometry to analyse organic compounds, including identifying banned drugs.

Take a look at this short clip about the research interests of Professor Jane Thomas-Oates, which shows some of the specialist kits and equipment in modern biological mass spectrometry.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

This article is from the free online

Exploring Everyday Chemistry

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education