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For as long as there has been competition in sport, there has been a shadowy sideline running parallel to it… that of performance-enhancing drugs.
And as financial incentives have grown, so the levels of risk that athletes have been prepared to take have proportionately increased.
Going back more than 100 years, one can find evidence of athletes being provided with drugs – including opium, strychnine, nitro-glycerine and amphetamines – to give them a winning edge.
Perhaps the most talked-about arena where drugs have been rife has been the Tour de France – a three-week cycling epic that traverses much of western Europe.
As far back as 1924, reporter Albert Londres described the competitors as the “Convicts of the Road” in his column as he covered the event for the Parisien newspaper.
The race is, to this day, dogged by allegations of drug-taking, as can be seen by the latest scandals involving the likes of Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, the Astana and Fiesta teams, to name just a few. The race has also seen several drug-related deaths.
Currently, all major sporting codes fall under the jurisdiction of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), which has compiled a comprehensive list of what can and cannot be taken.
So much so that it needs an expert to advise what over-the-counter medication is “safe” and won’t get you disqualified.
Athletes from every discipline are expected to know what they can take to improve their performance and what will get them into trouble, but many people continue to take products which put them at risk of testing positive for an illegal substance.
It was announced this week that the winner of the Comrades Marathon, Ludwick Mamabolo, had tested positive for methylhexaneamine, a stimulant found in some nasal sprays and diet pills.
This is the same drug that Springbok rugby players Chilliboy Ralepele and Bjorn Basson tested positive for on their team’s end-of-year tour of Britain in November 2010.
Durban’s Mario van Biljon, who owns the Bodyguru gym, is a bodybuilder and microbiologist who has carefully studied the nutritional requirements to be a top athlete.
He says athletes need to follow a proper eating plan and add supplements to their diet to ensure they reach their peak level of power and strength and maximise their muscle recovery.
Nutritional supplements cover a broad range from pure protein powder, which helps with muscle maintenance, growth and recovery.
Then there are the amino and fatty acids which aid the body by slowing the damage done to tissue when building muscle.
And thermogenics (fat burners) act to speed up one’s metabolism and burn fat at a faster rate. All these natural supplements need to be taken and used in conjunction with a full training regimen.
Given the amount of different drugs on the banned list, the question has to be asked: how much do most of them help the athlete?
In some cases, the drugs provide a clear advantage. In many other cases, the level of performance an athlete can achieve is unaffected by the drugs he takes.
A prime example would be a shooter or archer using beta-blockers to slow their heart rate and provide them with a level of calm that could not be achieved naturally… which would be hugely beneficial.
But a runner who consumes several cups of coffee or cola before or during a marathon would gain little advantage over others who take isotonic drinks.
And yet the athlete might test positive for caffeine and end up being banned.
Many so-called stimulants are of little physical assistance to an athlete, and it is the “placebo effect” – where one thinks the product is helping and that belief enables the athlete to perform at a better level – that is possibly of more value than the drug itself.
Are the Wada standards practical to adhere to, or should they be a bit more pragmatic about how the rules are applied?
At this stage, the answer is strictly: Don’t take anything on the Wada banned list if you wish to compete at a high level.
It’s as simple as that. - Sunday Tribune