Cycling legend Lance Armstrong used illegal drugs for many years.
Cycling legend Lance Armstrong used illegal drugs for many years.
Sports scientist Andrew McKune believes athletes start taking performance-enhancing drugs at school.
Sports scientist Andrew McKune believes athletes start taking performance-enhancing drugs at school.
South African champion David George admitted guilt.
South African champion David George admitted guilt.

Durban - First it was disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong who grabbed the headlines. Then South African cycling champion David George admitted to using banned substances.

UKZN-based sports scientist and researcher Professor Andrew McKune believes the problem begins at school.

On the rugby fields, in gymnasiums and swimming pools, performance-enhancing substances are being used to achieve good results, often with the knowledge of sports coaches.

“We know it is happening,” says McKune. “Concerned parents have told us; so have the students. What we need now is research to see the extent enhancement substances are used in our schools and the long-term effects.”

The substances to which he refers include a range of pharmaceutical products, such as dangerous anabolic steroids, which he says high school children are using to boost their athletic capabilities.

“It’s not something openly discussed, but a recent study of schoolboy athletes in Joburg was a shock for all of us. “

While some substances, such as creatine and caffeine, are often deemed safe, they set a “dangerous precedent”, says McKune.

“If you’ve used these additives through your school years, the chances are you’re not going to stop. To compete in open events, represent their province or country, junior athletes believe they need stronger performance-enhancing substances. That’s how the doping cycle gains momentum. That’s what we need to address.”

New international cycling chief Pat McQuaid addressed the issue in the wake of the international doping scandal surrounding Tour de France champion cyclist Lance Armstrong. “We need to make conclusions and recommendations that will enable us to restore confidence in the sport of cycling and in the UCI [International Cycling Union] as its governing body.”

He supported the use of the “athlete biology passport” that identified the banned drug erythropoietin in George’s urine.

“The biological passport is helping to change the behaviour of athletes,” he said.

Explaining the process, McKune says it’s an electronic record for professional athletes in which profiles of biological markers of doping and test results are collated over a period. Doping violations can be detected by noting variations from an athlete’s established levels rather than testing for and identifying illegal substances present in the blood and urine.

The latest study in Joburg involved 100 high school pupils aged between 15 and 18 who were members of first and second sports teams.

Thirty percent said they were taking performance-enhancing substances, including caffeine supplements and creatine, known to increase muscle size and boost performance in high-intensity anaerobic repetitive work.

Of greater concern, says McKune, was the number who admitted taking illegal anabolic steroids, growth hormones, adrenalin, ephedrine or insulin.

Reasons given were that they helped relieve the stress of sport, boosted performance and in some cases stopped the craving for food and kept weight down.

“From their responses, it was clear the children believed that if they didn’t take these substances they risked being dropped from a team.”

Eighty-four percent of the young athletes, from public and private schools, said high school athletes were under pressure to take performance-enhancers. Ninety-one percent said the use of the substances was on the increase.

Sports scientists such as McKune now believe there’s a need for a change in perceptions of sporting achievement, especially at schools. It should be asked, he says, what effect insufficient sleep, lack of rest and inadequate nutrition have on the body in the short and long terms.

“These questions can’t be answered overnight. You also can’t come up with a magic formula to create champions. The process takes time and the proper input.”

School rugby coaches, for example, he believes, are often ignorant of the basic science behind athletic development.

“They may have been good rugby players, but how much do they know about physiology, nutrition and structured training? Mostly it’s about winning the next match.”

The problem might not end there. A recent exploratory study reveals pharmacists and general practitioners have little knowledge of doping.

Sport doping does not receive any attention in the undergraduate medicine and pharmacy curriculums, with 86 percent of pharmacists and general practitioners surveyed saying they had no training to deal with the phenomenon. - Sunday Tribune