The Culture of Sport and Cheating

May 19, 2017

Professor Alison Heather, who heads up the ‘Heather Lab’ in the Department of Physiology at the University of Otago, discussed how cheating is now almost expected in sports. Athletes try to win by using performance enhancing drugs and then cheating on drug tests. Rules are no longer guidelines for the game but rather barriers to overcome. Cheating has become a game within the games.

Sports doping goes back to Roman times, when a concoction of bull testicles and mushrooms was the drug of choice. The Greeks even fed their honey alcohol to their gladiatorial horses as well. Drug testing began at the Olympics in 1968, but tests did not become sensitive until 15 years later with mass spectrometry of urine samples. As a result, 21 medals (11 gold) were stripped at the Pan American games and 31% of athletes chose not to show up once they found out that the drug tests would be held.

Sport supplements now feed a $32 billion industry, without any medical supervision or monitoring of the possible effects of androgens and other potential ingredients on long-term health, including on recreational sports people and school sports teams using products such as protein powders.

The Russian scandal that began in 2013 with 800m runner Yuliya Stepanova led to a very public watershed in 2016. Both she and the director of the Sochi Olympic Games testing lab – who also happens to be the man who led the extensive, secretive Russian sports doping programme – defected to America where they both now live with full-time bodyguards, in fear for their life after spilling the beans.

Potential health impacts of these unregulated performance enhancing drugs include liver toxicity, hormone-related cancer and enlarged heart. For more, see this short video summarising Prof Heather’s talk: