Wake up, a little earlier than usual, walk over to the HHP building — drug test. This is a fairly common occurrence in the lives of UNCG student athletes who can expect to be tested at least once a semester over the course of their athletic careers here. Street drugs, masking agents, and most importantly, performance enhancing drugs, or PEDs, are all tested for by an independent company called Drug Free Sport that the athletic department contracts to carry out both random and non-random drug tests on all UNCG student-athletes. UNCG athletes are also subject to other drug testing carried out by the NCAA itself. Student-athlete Luke Sumerford of the cross country and track and field teams had this to say about the rigorous testing regimen he and many other UNCG athletes go through; “Drug testing is crucial for the integrity of sports across the board. I believe in competing fairly and I support these tests.”
The experience of rigorous testing regimes, independent testing bodies and regular random tests, however, is not common in the world of professional athletics. A useful case study drug is recombinant erythropoietin, or EPO, a well-known drug that stimulates the body’s hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells. In a pharmaceutical application, it is used to assist the severely anemic to increase their red blood cell counts. For athletes, however, it can be used as a wonder drug of sorts. Higher red blood cell counts means that more oxygen can be delivered to the cells. This results in increased endurance and improved recovery, crucial aspects to all sports.
The most famous case of EPO use was the professional cyclist Lance Armstrong. EPO was just one of the drugs that Armstrong admitted to taking in his 2013 tell-all. The cyclist’s story is familiar; it is one of deception, backroom deals and a radical about-face as Armstrong now presents himself as a crusader against doping. As a result, today professional cycling is seen as merely a charade, viewed not as a grueling and exciting sport, but as one dominated by whomever carries out the most effective pharmaceutical regime. Since the Armstrong case, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and other anti-doping agencies have cracked down on cycling, with many of the top cyclists in the world now riding considerably slower than those of Lance’s heyday.
Cycling is not the only sport, however, in which EPO plays a role. In fact, most sports like to think that EPO doesn’t exist. The NFL only started testing for the substance in 2007. WADA has banned the substance since the early 1990s. The NBA bans the substance, but its testing policy, invariably negotiated in the player’s favor, forces the testing organization to notify the players of testing well in advance, allowing the players to set up their own appointments. This allows for the potential for players to employ the same tactics as Lance Armstrong, namely microdosing, which is the process of taking extremely small doses of substances to avoid detection, and saline injection, which involves administering a saline IV prior to testing to dilute the blood. The NHL, MLB and other major national sporting leagues employ equally lax testing policies.
Just as cycling is not the only sport impacted by EPO use, EPO is not the only drug used by athletes to cheat the system. In recent weeks, prominent tennis player Maria Sharapova tested positive for the blood flow-increasing heart disease drug melodonium. Unfortunately, Sharapova is not the only one. Since the beginning of this year, nearly 100 athletes across different sports have tested positive for the substance. The depth of the problem is equally shocking. In the 2012 Olympics women’s 1500m final, six of the twelve finishers — yes, half — have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs since the Games. This has prompted the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, to announce that it will retroactively retest urine samples taken in conjunction with the London Olympics.
This begs the question, then; what is to be done? The student-athlete interviewed earlier in this piece had a suggestion.
“I think anyone taking a performance enhancing drug should be barred for life from competing,” said Sumerford.
Certainly, lifetime bans would purge sports from offenders. However, what about the root causes of the use of these performance-enhancing substances? Perhaps it’s the enormous salaries paid to athletes, the lucrative sponsorship deals, the draw of the limelight, or maybe the culture of high profile athletics that pushes otherwise honest and moral athletes to carry out these illegal activities in the name of performance. Either way, testing needs to be ramped up, offenders need to be prosecuted and banned and we as the sports-viewing public must demand upstanding behavior of the athletes we look up to.