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Drugs in Sport 'Entrenched and Widespread' Claims New BMA Report

April 2002 

Report co-authored by University of Leicester academic

The British Medical Association's (BMA) Board of Science and Education published on April 11 the first ever UK report for health professionals on the use of drugs in sport.

The report, Drugs in Sport: The Pressure to Perform, claims that using drugs to enhance performance in sport, ‘doping’, is entrenched and widespread, and occurs both at the recreational level, for example in gyms, and at world championship elite level.

The reasons for ‘doping’ in sport are complex and range from media pressure to win, huge financial rewards, public expectations and the longing to be the best in the world. The desire to win can be such an overriding aspiration that some athletes have said they would take any drug to enhance their performance, even if there was a risk it might kill them.

As well as focussing on elite level sport the BMA report highlights the use of anabolic androgenic steroid use in British gyms. Reasons for using steroids range from enhancing performance to improving body image. Some research indicates that one third of GPs are likely to encounter patients who use steroids.

The BMA is particularly concerned that steroids are easily available on the internet, through gyms and on the black-market. The quality and safety of black-market products is questionable and cases of poisoning, infection and mental illness have been reported.

The BMA’s Head of Ethics and Science, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, said today: “What is really worrying is that people who use drugs in sport are taking potentially life-threatening drugs and think it’s worth it. Surely no accolade is worth your health or indeed life?”

Examples of some of the drugs used to enhance performance and their adverse effects are as follows:

Stimulants like amphetamines and cocaine are used to reduce tiredness and improve reaction times:

amphetamines can cause an increase in aggressive behaviour and can be addictive; high doses can cause heart attacks,

cocaine can cause paranoid psychosis, irregular heartbeat and sudden death, especially following intense exercise.

Anabolic agents are used to improve strength and stamina:

steroids can cause adverse cosmetic effects, cardiovascular risk, liver tumour and dysfunction, aggressive behaviour, dependence, psychological and fertility problems.

Human growth hormones (hGHs) are used to increase muscle mass and allow users to train harder, longer and more frequently:

overuse of hGHs in children can lead to ‘gigantism, and in adults can lead to ‘acromegaly’, a disease which causes skeletal deformities, arthritis and enlargement of the organs, half of all patients with acromegaly die before the age of 50.

Narcotics like morphine are used for pain relief:

high doses can lead to stupor, coma and death.

In order to begin to tackle the problem of ‘doping’ in sport the BMA has made recommendations in its report to the medical profession, athletes, the public, policy-makers, academics and the pharmaceutical industries.

Dr Nathanson said today: “The BMA acknowledges how difficult it would be to implement a successful anti-doping policy in the UK - more research and improved testing are required. Also any policy would need to be able to stand up to legal challenges by athletes. But there is a lot that policy-makers could and should be doing.”

The BMA recommendations include:

Training for doctors at undergraduate and postgraduate levels on ‘doping’ in sport so that they are able to recognise and treat problems.

Educating non-elite and elite athletes about ‘doping’. Sportsmen and women should be encouraged to have long-term medical monitoring whether or not they use drugs.

Tighter control of the supplies of drugs such as hGHs.

Introducing incentives and rewards - for example, drugs passport schemes that enable athletes to demonstrate their commitment to drug-free sport could be piloted in the UK. This would involve athletes keeping a passport that would be regularly updated with their testing history and their participation in competitions would be dependent on this.

Implementing awareness campaigns for the general public and the medical profession.

The BMA, while commending UK Sport for its recent anti-doping policy (January 2002), believe that the need for education and rehabilitation for athletes suspended for doping offences should be emphasised in any strategy to deal with drugs in sport.

Dr Ivan Waddington is one of the Report’s authors and is Co-Director of the Centre for Research into Sport and Society at the University of Leicester, 0116 252 5935 (Friday April 12).

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Last updated: April 2002
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