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Should Olympic Athletes Be Allowed to Use Drugs?

Should Olympic Athletes Be Allowed to Use Drugs?

Author: Justin Mckibben

Olympic athletes and drugs have become a pretty regular topic of discussion over time. Athletes in general have been back and forth fighting both for and against drug use in sports. While the context is sometimes very different, the topic of discussion remains- should athletes be allowed to user drugs? We have one side of the argument that debates doping regulations and performance enhancers. On the other side you have athletes who believe recreational drug use should not impact their athletic careers.

Then there is what is often called “legal doping,” which carries its own controversy. So when it comes to stacking gold medals and representing a nation in international sport, should Olympic athletes be allowed to use drugs?

Anti-Doping and Non-approved Substances

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) maintains an extensive list of substances and methods that may be considered performance enhancing drugs. These substances are banned during competitions and some even outside of competitions. WADA rules apply not only during the Olympics, but also other high-stakes competitions such as the FIFA World Cup, the Tour de France, and international tennis competitions. Some of these drugs include:

  • Anabolic agents
  • Growth factors and peptide hormones
  • Beta-2 agonists
  • Hormones and metabolic modulators
  • Diuretics and masking agents
  • Stimulants
  • Narcotics
  • Cannabinoids
  • Glucocorticoids

Beyond these are “nonapproved substances,” which represents a broader class of substances. These drugs are those still in clinical trials, discontinued drugs, designer drugs and even veterinary drugs.

Legal Doping

This is where a grey area comes in that can get a little confusing. “Legal Doping” pertains to taking a legal prescription drug that may improve performance, but hasn’t been banned by anti-doping authorities. Basically, it is a medically necessary loop hole. The claims of taking a substance for health, not performance, can be a tricky one. According to doping experts, lots of athletes competing in the Rio Olympics this year will be taking advantage of this loophole.

For example- there is the story of tennis star Maria Sharapova admits to taking heart drug meldonium.

Meldonium Madness

Meldonium can improve blood flow, so there is a practical medical use. It is also a WADA-banned-drug since January. Therefore, Sharapova’s admission in March means she’s not eligible to compete in Rio. Even though Sharapova says she’s been taking it for a decade before the ban.

Yet, many other athletes who took meldonium before the ban are still able to compete. The sports they’re competing in include:

  • Tennis
  • Swimming
  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Rugby
  • Rowing
  • Volleyball

According to WADA there are over 100 Olympic athletes who have shown evidence of meldonium use since the ban. But most of these Olympic athletes can still compete because levels of the drug were low enough that they might be left over from use that took place before the ban took effect.

Prescriptions to Victory

That is only one instance of a group of prescription heart drugs that could enhance the performance of an endurance athlete. Some experts say it is clear Olympic athletes are experimenting with a range of prescription drugs in an effort to get an edge.

Another of these drugs is a blood pressure medication, Telmisartan. Telmisartan is also designed to improve blood flow. WADA recently added it to a list of drugs the agency is monitoring, but it’s not yet banned.  Neither Meldonium nor Telmisartan are what many might consider ideal doping agents for Olympic athletes, but they’re still cutting it close.

There are agencies charged with preventing doping. But it can take years to assess a potential new doping drug. Information on the performance-enhancing qualities of a substance can be difficult to determine.

Weed and Gold Winners

Then of course there is the recreational. This conversation became even more popular with one of America’s most celebrated Olympic athletes, Michael Phelps, caught the spotlight for smoking marijuana.

In 2008, the American Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps went for eight… count them, 8… gold medals in Beijing. Years later Phelps was arrested September 30th, 2014 for a DUI charge. That October he made an apology via his Twitter account for his DUI arrest, and ultimately he attended rehab. Now while maintaining his sobriety he is competing with a strong stance in the Olympic swimming sports.

While substance abuse and addiction may not have stopped Phelps from making a big come-back, many still debate over whether even recreational drug use should be a concern for Olympic athletes at all. Pro-sports players have come out to argue for medical marijuana being permitted in place of opiates in states where medicinal use of marijuana is legal. Could marijuana itself become another form of “legal doping” given its current indistinct status on legality?

Should Olympic athletes be allowed to use a drug that has the potential to enhance their performance if it is for their health? Should recreational substances be given less or more strict regulations? Should a drug that is legal is some places be considered fair game, or should ALL drugs be barred from sports?

Regardless of physical or mental strength, addiction can destroy even Olympic athletes. Steroids are another dangerous mind altering substance that can wreck havoc on even the most talented star. Training the mind and the body to fight addiction is worthy of its own gold medal.