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Action Replay: Pressure to Compete

LANCE ARMSTRONG was never actually caught taking performance-enhancing drugs. Rather, the cyclist simply gave up fi ghting the allegations that he had done so. Regardless of the truth of the situation, this latest development is a reminder of the role of drug-taking in many sports.

There were plenty of earlier examples, but large-scale taking of drugs to improve performance probably goes back at least to WWII, when many soldiers took amphetamines and anabolic steroids to boost their alertness and aggression. It did not really become an issue in sport until 1967, when the International Olympic Committee began to ban drugs, though full-scale testing only started in 1972. In the former state capitalist countries of Eastern Europe, doping had become a kind of standard procedure.

Of course, you might well ask the question, what is wrong with doping? And how does it differ from following an appropriate diet, consuming energy drinks, using the very latest kit and clothing that are intended to make you run faster, and so on? The official answer is that, quite apart from wanting sport to look ‘clean’ for spectators, many drugs are dangerous. Cycling, which as an extreme endurance sport is particularly open to doping, has seen a number of deaths from taking erythropoietin, which increases the red blood cell count. Anabolic steroids can have side effects such as acne and impotence in men, and hair loss in women. Some Paralympic athletes actually give themselves electric shocks to boost their blood pressure. However, even legal gym supplements that boost your protein may lead to kidney damage.

As for why athletes risk their health and even their lives by taking drugs, the answer lies in the money and the fame, not to mention the pressure from coaches and national associations. There is an ongoing race between those who organise doping and those who devise new testing procedures, with neither side able or willing to stand still. The priorities of a system based on competition speak for themselves. And, as so often, human intelligence and ingenuity are put to ultimately pointless uses.