Sports Aren’t Clean. Doping IS MORE Prevalent Than Ever. The Top Drugs Can’t Even Be Detected in Lab Tests.
Almost half of competitive athletes are willing to admit to some sort of illicit drug use; and a lot of this admission has to do with underage binge drinking. If nearly half of athletes willingly admit to taking a performance DECREASING substance and place their career prospects or athletic scholarships on the line, how is the public to believe that they would never take a performance INCREASING substance? Some of us were born at night, but not last night.
Amazingly, people think that somehow drug testing and the outing of Lance Armstrong marked some sort of tipping point in sports. Nope. The most powerful performance drugs CANNOT be tested AT ALL. And “clean” athletes are easily doped without their own overt knowledge by coaches and assistants. Watch the documentary Ikarus; and you get a serious wake up call.
Beyond that, the ADMITTED prevalence of drug abuse among athletes is as high as 44%: https://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/ncaa-student-athlete-substance-use-study-executive-summary-august-2014. This is the ADMITTED usage rate. Obviously, many (I’d suspect most) would never admit to it, even in an allegedly anonymous survey. So we can justifiably assume the number is higher. Is it a little higher like a simple majority or is it a lot higher like close to all? That we don’t know. We just know that there’s no way to test for the most powerful drugs.
And there won’t be, ever. The historically-common steroids and stimulants which line the endless lists of banned substances on athletic organization rosters aren’t even the good ones. The best performance enhancing drugs can’t be tested. They have incredibly short windows of detectability or none, even by a secondary marker or metabolite. Moreover, when chemists make a never-before-used PED, clearly there won’t yet exist a test for it. And, of course, none of this takes into account how a program could openly dope youth athletes every year until 7 years before their first Olympics and still honestly pass a polygraph.
Even among known PEDs like insulin, there is no good way to test for its presence even minutes after administration: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2004/jun/24/research.science. This has been under suspicion since at least 2001: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1129-athletes-may-be-increasingly-abusing-insulin/. The training effect from insulin exceeds anything anyone can get from testosterone or derivatives. In the past 20 years, we are to believe that people who want to win “whatever it takes” decide to simply opt out of using undetectable compounds?
And let’s just say that an athlete is committed to staying “clean,” whatever that means to him or her. A coach can recommend a “nasal spray” before competition, which the athlete genuinely believes is for allergies or breathing, but it’s really just insulin: https://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/64/3/687. The athlete wouldn’t even know. “I just had a good day,” she might think. “Wow; I keep having good days,” she might think. And why would she ever pause to think of herself as a cheater when she’s training her butt off and slaving for her sport?
In the past 10 years, peptides and analogs of hormones have surged into popularity. Since most of them signal the body itself to ramp up its own endogenous production of natural growth factors, there literally can't be a test for many of them. Some sports writers have taken to covering this by focusing on one or two seemingly popular drugs: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1955231-undetectable-the-new-ped-that-could-be-in-the-olympics-nfl-and-mlb-now. But what the sports commentators don't seem to realize is that the variations on this theme are infinite. There is nothing in the way of making variants of peptides and analogs, and making them super inexpensive, and administering them with no consequences. Decent chemists with at-home labs can keep churning these out. It doesn't take vast state-sponsored research institutes and conspiratorially-crafted deep pockets anymore. It could be your middle-class neighbor with a chemical engineering degree looking to make a small amount of extra money.
Let us marvel at the elite athletes. Let us enjoy the Olympians. But let us not be so naive as to believe that what we’re seeing even approaches our idea of “clean.” And really let us not be even more naive to nostalgically look back on the “good ol’ days.” There were no good ol’ days. The 1904 marathon gold medalist doped with strychnine. The ancient Greeks doped with testosterone (yes, they consumed animal sex organs). Cocaine wasn’t regulated in the US until 1914; it didn’t become unpopular until nearly 1950; and even the MODERN drug test for cocaine cannot detect it in a low-dose user after 1-4 days. Thus, let us be careful when comparing ourselves and those around us. And let us be realistic when we see a news story about a supposed positive drug test in an athlete. Really, what we’re probably seeing is someone who didn’t play nice with the right people. I highly doubt what we’re seeing is “the one bad apple” or even one of a few bad apples. We’re simply seeing a sample of people who are under incredible pressure to be the absolute best in the world.
They and those around them are going to do whatever it takes. And the most powerful "whatever it takes" isn't even detectable in a lab test.