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The worrying future of drugs in sport

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I have loved the Olympics since I first watched them on a black and white television a long time ago. Imagine a time before the internet and multiple TV/satellite
channels, sports fans had to contend with college/university sport and the odd match from a World Cup being broadcast. Increasingly more of the Olympics
were shown on television and I couldn’t wait for the next instalment to arrive to the point where in London nearly every event and every game/match/contest
was available even if only on the red button. So many things drew me, the passion of each athlete and the support from fans as the cheer on their preferred
sport. As well as this I loved that with each Olympics I could discovered a new sport, learnt about and became completely gripped. Nothing could beat
the Olympics for the complete sporting experience for me and when I speak to athletes it’s the one medal they want above all others.

Something I never knew about or even considered as a child as I watched this incredible celebration of sport was that athletes would cheat and even
less that they would willingly take drugs to enhance their performances. Although the IOC (International Olympic Committee) had banned the use
of performance-enhancing drugs in Olympic competition in 1967 and a small but steady group of athletes had been caught it was Ben Johnson along
with four other athletes’ that brought the reality of cheating into my innocent bubble. The worst year was the 2000 Sydney Olympics where fifteen
medals were revoked from athletes as a result of failed doping tests. With each Olympics since then a shadow has always hung over the games and
I have held my breath that things would finally be better and that athletes would learn that cheating doesn’t work.

The earth shattering news that Russia had systematically cheated and that it was part of the national system last year took things to an all-time low,
followed by other countries being warned about their programs. Less than six months out from the Olympics, sport is in crisis as the latest issue
has come to light. The “Legal” abuse of prescription medication such as Meldonium, Thyroxine and Tramadol by athletes, often instructed by their
coaching staff has seen cheating taking to a sinister place. The above drugs are prescribed to athletes and the general public that NEED them for
health reasons. What is happening is that these, along with other drugs are being prescribed to improve performance and have nothing to do with
the need of the athlete. What is worrying with this shift is that the athlete is being put at a higher risk than ever before. The side effects
of these drugs on people that don’t need them can at best be weight loss issues and dizziness and at worst lead to a heart attack. My wife’s life
depends on Thyroxine and if she forgets to take it or doesn’t go for her regular dosage reviews with her doctor she can become very ill. Imagine
the impact on someone that doesn’t need to take it but is using it to enhance their performance? A good example is Meldonium; it is used medically
to treat a lack of blood flow. It can also, however be used as a metabolic enhancer to increase endurance through greater blood flow if you want
to “legally” cheat. Meldonium was banned just over two months ago, since the ban came into force one hundred and thirty athletes have been tested
positive for the drug! Just to be clear athletes didn’t wake up to find the drug was banned, the drug has been on the WADA (World Anti Doping Agency)
list to be banned and athletes have been systematically notified. Athletes that have tested for it in the lead up to the ban have been warned repeatedly
including Maria Sharapova who was warned five times (according to The Telegraph).

Aside from the obvious the questions that need to be asked, the one that rings loudest for me is “are there really that many athletes with heart issues
and blood flow challenges competing at Olympic level?” I do not think so and clearly nor does WADA. The worrying thing is that to get these drugs,
prescriptions are needed which means there are doctors breaking their Hippocratic Oath to do this and coaches showing their athletes how to fail
tests to get the medication.

This is the new era of cheating where drugs meant to help and heal are being used to improve performance is a long way from Mexico City 1968, when
Swedish pentathlete Hans-Grunner Liljenwall was the first athlete to be disqualified for “drug use”. He tested positive for excessive alcohol.
If only that was our sole challenge today.

I still love the Olympics but with each new story that comes out I look at athletes that have performed well, come from “nowhere” to win and are still
improving despite their age with a certain amount of doubt. I am not as quick to celebrate success and I wait to see if they can prove themselves
“clean” over time. This has taken the edge off the purity of sport and the Olympic ethos that I fell in love with. Some may say that I am a romantic
but surely it is about the taking part, being called an Olympian and the amazing achievement it is to just get to be on that stage and to be written
into the history books? I am friends with athletes that never won an Olympic medal but they won the right to compete at the Olympics and to be
called “an Olympian”, that in its self was a huge achievement. Such a minority of athletes qualify for each Olympics and even less win a medal
that surely this is the celebration?

I appreciate that everyone wants to win, but at what price? If winning at any cost is everything now then we are in danger of breeding a generation
that will become solely focused on this and lose sight of what the Olympics are and what it means to compete on the grandest sporting stage of
all. An increasing number of lives will be put at risk and the value of sport completely eroded as fans lose trust in athletes and children that
aspire to be great will feel the need to abuse their bodies with legal drugs or take the risk to use band substances. A tough stance with zero
tolerance should be adopted and mainted if we are to see this decline halted because for the majority of athletes they want their sport to be clean
and to be seen to be clean.