Doping In Sports: Performance Enhancing Drugs Do Relatively Little For Competitive Athletes

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Poring over more than a hundred years worth of records, Australian researchers find doping might not have been as useful for athletes as suspected. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

Drug scandals have rocked many a professional sport, from steroids in Major League Baseball to EPO in the Tour de France.

Top athletes like Alex Rodriguez and Marion Jones have been caught red-handed with positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs, their reputations tarnished and accomplishments striped.  And many commentators have lamented the lax regulations, ineffective tests and win-at-all-costs culture that have fueled the rampant use of these drugs. These punishments and admonishments have taken for granted that drug dopers not only shamed their respective sports by gaining an unfair physical advantage over their competitors; they’ve deprived spectators from observing the true pinnacle of natural human ability.

But researchers from Adelaide University have published a surprising new study, finding that the doping era of sports likely hasn’t been the boon to performance we’ve all thought it was; it might have even made athletes perform worse than if these drugs never came into existence at all.

Explaining that performance-enhancing drugs weren’t widely available until 1932, the authors performed an analysis of 26 sporting events found in the Summer and Winter Olympics, for men and women, like the 100 meter sprint and javelin throwing. Studying the record times and distances set before doping became commonplace, they then extrapolated how these records would improve over time, and compared them to the actual records set throughout the years. They also performed an analysis of the time period before and after 1967, when doping became acknowledged as happening regularly. While the athletes in various events continued to achieve new bests, the authors found that they weren’t breaking them as fast or as powerfully as the authors predicted they should have, at least when it came to events seen during the Summer Olympics. ”Even assuming that not all cases of doping were discovered, the practice did not alter sporting records as commonly believed,” the authors wrote.

Similarly, when they compared known dopers to those who never were suspected, they didn’t find the boost in performance expected.”Averaged best life records for ‘doped’ top athletes did not differ significantly from those considered ‘non-doped’,” they wrote.

The exception turned out to be winter sports athletes, who often surpassed the expectations laid out, but the researchers believe these results say more about the complexity of the sport itself than any potential performance enhancers, “Winter sports on the other hand involve a plethora of different techniques and abilities including stamina, endurance, strength, agility, precision to name but a few,” they wrote, “This therefore means that any such doping would be much harder to conduct in winter sports in any foreseeably beneficial manner.”

Though some of the sports records studied are hard to interpret any conclusions from; for example, women were banned from track and field competition until 1928 and they were only allowed to regularly run in marathons in the 1980’s, lead author Dr. Aaron Hermann believes that his study points strongly to only one conclusion. "This research demonstrates that doping practices are not improving results and in fact, may be harming them - seemingly indicating that 'natural' human abilities would outperform the potentially doping 'enhanced' athletes - and that in some sports, doping may be highly prevalent," said Hermann in a press release.

In addressing known cases of performance-enhancing drugs that seemingly created giants out of mortals, the authors believe that while an individual given the best drug regimen from trained medical professionals might minimally improve their performance, that doesn’t describe the majority of dopers. “[P]erhaps the clandestine nature of modern doping means that athletes are limited in their chances to dope, in the range of substances available, and do not have full support of sports scientists and medical practitioners to ensure such results,” they wrote. They also speculate that some athletes could feel guilty after doping, hampering their mental facilities even as they try to improve those physical.

Despite their results, or because of them, Hermann and his colleagues hope that the incidence of doping can be accurately recorded and then combatted; citing research that has found abyssal rates of drug detection. "In many sports, there are perceptions that an athlete needs to dope in order to remain competitive and I hope these findings will confront those ill-informed views, and help stamp out doping in sport," said Hermann.

After all, if doping does make you worse at sports, then fans and athletes alike really are being cheated, just not the way we thought. 

Source: Hermann A, Henneberg M. Long term effects of doping in sporting records: 1886-2012. Journal of Human Sports and Exercise. 2015

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