They train for years, giving up the lazy hours of childhood and putting off promising careers, all in a quest to be the best in the world.
So why, after all that, would an Olympic athlete risk losing it all by taking anything that could result in a positive drug test?
Drug use has been a problem in Olympic sports for decades — Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 after a urine test disclosed banned steroids. But the problem has cast an especially dark pall over this year’s Summer Games. In the most notable case, Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan was stripped of her gold medal after testing positive for pseudoephedrine, a stimulant. Romanian officials said the drug was in two cold tablets given to her by a team doctor.
And in another instance, Olympic officials said C.J. Hunter, the world shot put champion who is not competing in Sydney due to an injury, had tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone. Hunter’s nutrionist claims the positive result was the product of the nutritional supplement Hunter was taking.
Money and Fame
Some experts say the financial rewards of being a medalist are a factor.
“I think the answer is in the money and the fame and the fact that it’s sometimes the only thing in their lives,” says Doriane Coleman, senior lecturer at Duke University School of Law and two-time Swiss National Champion in the 800-meter run.
Some athletes use performance enhancers, despite the fact that these substances and methods are harmful to their health, and often cause short and long-term damage.
“Athletes do it because they do what it takes to win. And if there is a pill out there or an injection that will build stronger and faster muscles or increase speed, in the end, they’ll do it because there is an extreme amount of money for winning a gold medal or setting a world record,” says Dr. Robert Voy, former chief medical officer for the United States Olympic Committee.
Experts say while monetary incentives are one reason, there are many more. Often athletes are so intertwined in a community of coaches and other athletes, they can come under certain kinds of pressure from those forces to engage in doping.
“In some cases, I think it’s definitely self-inflicted and in others, the coaches are at least as responsible as the athlete,” says Wayne Wilson, vice president of research for the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles and co-editor of Doping in Elite Sport: The Politics in the Olympic Movement.
Sometimes, athletes feel like they are going to be at a competitive disadvantage if they don’t engage in doping, and have to make a fundamental ethical choice if they are going to play by the rules or not, adds Ed Derse, co-editor of Doping in Elite Sport: The Politics in the Olympic Movement.
“I feel sorry for those athletes who do nothing other than train hard. They are the ones getting cheated, which is a shame. The years of dedication and training that they do to get here, and then [they] are cheated by a fraction of a second or couple of inches in a jump” Voy said.
Worth the Risk?
Olympics officials have taken several steps to crack down on doping in Olympic competition at this year’s games. In every competition, the three medal winners and at least one random competitor in each event are tested.
“I think that in some cases athletes probably weren’t fully aware of how serious the IOC has become about cracking down on drugs,” Wilson said.
Despite the stepped up efforts by the International Olympic Committee, some experts are still critical of the current testing methods.
“Doping has gone on for about as long as sport has gone on and you find as the stakes have gotten higher, so has the prevalence of doping in sport,” says Derse. “A lot of things can’t be tested for or they can’t catch you for and their are ways to manipulate the system.”
Coleman says the IOC’s current drug test effort is inadequate and there is a lot that needs to be done to make it fair and effective.
“They say they are testing, but they are running some random tests that are not nearly enough to make a difference. They need to research and develop good tests that are targeted at the substances that the athletes today are misusing.
“You have to invest in research and development. You have got to have effective and fair drug testing. Effective in that you catch them, and fair, in that the system assures that you are not catching innocent people,” Coleman said.
Still, few think that highly competitive sports will ever be completely clean.
“I think if drug use decreases it will be because of the deterrent effect — the opportunity to lose the opportunity to gain both glory and money during your athletic competitions. If the IOC is serious about cracking down on drugs, I think there will probably be less drug use, but I don t think it will ever be eliminated,” Wilson said.