It was recently reported that Russia have been handed a four-year ban from all major sporting events following an investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Russia will now be barred from the 2020 Olympics and the 2022 World Cup finals. But what is doping, and how does it damage sport?

What is doping?

Doping is defined as the use of banned athletic performance-enhancing drugs. Using drugs to enhance performance is considered unethical. Banned substances include drugs such as steroids and growth hormones, but ‘doping’ can also include methods such as increasing oxygen in the bloodstream through blood transfusions. The list of banned substances and methods is constantly updated by WADA.

How many athletes dope?

WADA test blood and urine samples of Olympic athletes every year, and about 1-2% of the samples test positive for prohibited substances. However, the actual figure is estimated to be much higher. Shockingly, in a study of athletes carried out in 2011, 57% of competitors admitted to doping in the past year. Because drugs taken earlier in the season would be impossible to detect in samples taken at a later date, many athletes get away with this – whilst still benefiting from the performance enhancing effects. Additionally, WADA can’t test for performance enhancing drugs that it hasn’t seen before – this means that doping is constantly evolving as athletes and their trainers develop new and innovative drugs and methods to remain a step ahead. So no one can be quite sure how many athletes dope.

Why is doping a problem in sport?

Aside from the issues of fairness (those taking performance-enhancing drugs are very likely to outperform those who don’t), there is a significant health issue. Between 1987 and 1990, 20 young Belgian and Dutch cyclists died from nocturnal heart attacks after taking the hormone erythropoietin. A generation of East German athletes had their lives ruined and in some cases their sexes changed following widespread steroid use.

It is dangerous enough for athletes to dope when they have a team of trainers and medically trained scientists on hand. But when elite athletes dope, so too do those in the ranks below them. Amateur and semi-professional athletes follow their example and it can be significantly more dangerous as they take these drugs without advice. When it was recently found that men who regularly take steroids have a three times higher risk of death, this is extremely worrying.

What do the athletes say?

Many athletes have been highly critical of doping. Paula Radcliffe said in 2008, “Running is about who works hardest and then runs fastest. It is about getting to the finish first fairly. Every athlete must start from the same point, something that is not possible when some are doping. If you invest so much of yourself, you have a right to fair competition.” The frustration for ‘clean’ athletes who invest so much of themselves only to be beaten by an athlete who has been doping is easy to understand. And it is these clean athletes who will welcome Russia’s ban, which has happened because Russia planted fake evidence and deleted files linking to positive doping tests, suggesting widespread and systematic doping among Russian athletes.

What will happen in the future?

WADA and other anti-doping agencies continue to work to stamp out doping, but significantly more funding is required to keep this work proactive.

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