The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, holds the usual pomp and circumstance as all Olympic Games do. However, Rio 2016 arrives with a dark cloud hanging over it as news of more athletes testing positive for banned substances is released on a nearly daily basis.
According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), more than 100 athletes on the Russian team have been banned thus far and others are awaiting confirmation of their eligibility. Shockingly, just one of the team’s track and field athletes will be allowed to compete at the 2016 games.
Use of banned substances — commonly called performance-enhancing drugs or PEDs — is nothing new. In fact, the IOC announced that retesting done on samples provided during the London and Beijing Olympics found close to 100 athletes tested positive for PEDs from 2008-12. What’s more, athletes were even thought to have taken exotic concoctions to improve their performance during the original games in Ancient Greece.
“The athletes that train and qualify for the Olympic Games are the best of the best,” says Dr. Damion Valletta, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with Sharp Coronado Hospital, and a team doctor with the United States women’s national soccer team.
“The competition is so fierce that some athletes have been driven to use performance-enhancing drugs — and some countries have made it a policy to encourage athletes to use them — even though they are banned by the IOC and can be extremely dangerous,” he says.
While there are several types of PEDs, there are four more commonly used by premier athletes: anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, stimulants and supplements.
Anabolic steroids, such as testosterone, promote muscle mass and strength. They help make an athlete’s muscles larger as well as help reduce muscle damage during training so that an athlete can recover quickly after a workout. However, anabolic steroids can also cause infertility, high blood pressure, liver abnormalities, heart problems, aggressive behavior and a variety of undesirable physical and emotional changes, such as acne and depression.
Human growth hormone, or HGH, is also taken by some athletes to increase muscle mass and improve performance. Side effects include a variety of ailments such as muscle weakness, joint pain, vision problems, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Stimulants can improve an athlete’s endurance, alertness and aggressiveness. They also reduce fatigue and suppress appetite. Unfortunately, they can lead to insomnia, dehydration, heart rhythm abnormalities, and even heart attack and stroke.
Supplements, like creatine, can be purchased over the counter, although this does not mean that they are without danger to athletes. They are not regulated by the FDA and may include unknown and harmful additives. Creatine is thought to help with quick bursts of energy and power, but can also cause cramping and water retention, which can lead to kidney and liver damage.
“While organizations like the IOC strive to eliminate the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes, it is a problem that will not likely be solved by the 2016 Games,” says Dr. Valletta. “We must continue to educate not only elite athletes about the dangers of PED use, but also ensure that our young athletes are aware that PEDs can do far more damage to their performance — and overall health — than enhance it.”