Several athletes have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as well, two of whom were using commonly prescribed medication.
There are over 100 banned substances on the the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) “prohibited” list, including commonly known performance enhancers like anabolic steroids and amphetamines.
However, the list also includes everyday substances like nasal spray and certain kinds of asthma medication and several methods which prevent the detection of performance enhancers in the bloodstream.
Painkillers and common prescription drugs are banned
Many of the substances banned by WADA are commonly prescribed drugs for well-known ailments, Dr. Doug Richards, the head of the MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic at the University of Toronto told Global News.
“Some of the substances that are prohibited by WADA are available as prescription drugs in different countries,” said Richards, who used hair loss medication and insulin as examples.
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In order for a drug to be banned by WADA, it must meet one of two sets of criteria. The first involves satisfying two of three sub-criterion:
- The drug must be performance enhancing in nature, methods can also be included in this branch.
- The drug must be potentially dangerous to the health of the athlete.
- The drug must be against the spirit of sport.
A drug can also be banned if it’s determined to be a masking agent for performance-enhancing drugs, personal identification, etc.
Ken Kirkwood, an assistant professor at Western University’s School of Health Studies explains that while most athletes take drugs to gain some physiological advantage over their competition, this often comes in the form of painkillers and other common agents rather than substances that enhance performance during competition.
He adds that the physical advantage of this to athletes is that they’re able to train harder by recovering faster from workouts, though this does little to help them while competing.
“We often see the use of painkillers because you’re injured — drugs that are banned but you’re using them to keep you in your sport … Athletes are playing hurt because they just don’t feel it,” explained Kirkwood.
Other prescription medications that are banned by the WADA include the nasal decongestant pseudoephedrine, the asthma drug salbutamol, the heart medication meldonium and insulin.
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So far, three athletes have tested positive for doping during the 2018 Winter Games.
Slovenian hockey player Ziga Jeglic was suspended on Tuesday by the Court of Arbitration for Sport after testing positive for fenoterol, an asthma medicine that has the ability to enhance performance by improving airflow. Russian athlete Aleksandr Krushelnitckii tested positive on Sunday for the banned drug meldonium, costing him the bronze he and his wife won in mixed double’s curling. Lastly, Japanese speed skater Kei Saito was cast out after testing positive for the masking agent and diuretic, acetazolamide.
New ways of avoiding detection are constantly being developed
In addition to the wide range of drugs athletes are prohibited from using, detection technology is improving slower than drugs and masking techniques are developing.
For example, while athletes have the option to submit prescription medication for “therapeutic exception,” this has become a point of contention in the past where athletes have claimed they had no intent to cheat but rather forgot to declare their medication. In addition, athletes have run into trouble in the past by asking for a medical exception for drugs which were later deemed medically unnecessary.
Norway, for example, submitted therapeutic exceptions for a large number of asthmatic athletes, which came under suspicion. According to Norway’s public broadcaster, the country’s Olympic team took 6,000 doses of asthma medication to Pyeongchang.
“Cheaters find ways to evade detection by changing doses or using designer substances that a lot of people don’t know about,” said Richards.
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In addition, as detection technology gets better and more precise, athletes are getting more proficient at fooling drug tests. Microdosing, taking small doses of performance-enhancing drugs more frequently than rather than large doses at longer time intervals, is a prime example of how those determined enough have found news ways to game the system.
In response to the constantly growing roster of detection-avoidance techniques, Richards explains that authorities introduced a method called the biological passport in 2009, which tracks biomarkers over time to establish baselines for each athlete. Regardless, these have not produced any noticeable uptick in positive test results.
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Kirkwood and Richards agree that professional sport authorities are still a long way away from getting a handle on doping.
“There are a lot of clean athletes, but there is a lot more drug use than the tests would suggest.”