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A Look At Doping From Ancient Greece To The 2018 Olympics

Photo of the 2018 Winter Olympics logo
Wikimedia Commons

The Winter Olympics kick off this week in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but the headlines leading up to the international games are dominated by a doping scandal. The International Olympic Committee banned Russia’s team as punishment for systematic state-sponsored doping.

A fight continues about which Russian athletes will receive special clearance to participate. This is not the first time doping has cast a shadow over the Olympics or over celebrated athletes. Advancements in science and technology in the past decades have allowed athletes to both use more cutting-edge substances and discover more sophisticated ways of hiding illicit substance use.

Host Frank Stasio talks about the science of performance-enhancing substances and their effect on the body with Anthony Hackney. Hackney is a professor in exercise physiology and nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of “Doping, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, and Hormones in Sport: Mechanisms of Action and Methods of Detection” (Elsevier/2017). 

Stasio also discusses the ancient history of doping with Daniel M. Rosen, author of “Dope: A History of Performance Enhancement in Sports from the Nineteenth Century To Today” (Praeger/2008). Rosen discusses some of the biggest scandals in the modern sports era. They are then joined by Duke law professor and anti-doping expert Doriane Lambelet Coleman to talk about the legal standards for illicit substance abuse. Lambelet discusses her work developing domestic and international anti-doping programs. She also outlines the consequences for an athlete who uses an illegal substance, and shares her take on the latest Russian doping scandal.

Interview Highlights

Hackney on the creation of performance-enhancing drugs:
The vast majority of the ones that you see that are on the banned list are really created pharmaceutically to help medical conditions. And what we find is unscrupulous coaches, trainers, athletes usurp those for some of their physiological benefits that would help different kinds of medical conditions in an attempt to try to enhance their performance.

One of the mantras in the anti-doping effort is always that the athletes and their chemists are a step ahead of the anti-doping authorities. - Doriane Lambelet Coleman

Hackney on what would happen if doping in sport was legalized:
But then we [would] get into issues: who's not necessarily the best athlete, but who has the best chemist and pharmaceutical companies supporting them … Are we going to say: Let the chips fall where they may, and you go ahead and die? Or are we going to say: Yes, you can use this, but we have to make certain you use it only at levels that will not cause long-term health [consequences] or premature death. I think the real issue is, again coming back to, are we harming the athlete. Is that the purpose of sport? I think not.

Rosen on performance enhancement in ancient Greece: 
One of the legends is that some of the athletes who needed additional strength in their pursuits would eat a delicacy we know today as Rocky Mountain oysters. And in that way they would boost their levels of testosterone. And what's interesting about that is – assuming the story is true – that that little bit of folk wisdom or whatever is amazingly close to what was developed a couple of millennia later.

Lambelet Coleman on how the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) decides to ban a substance:
All of the substances and methods on the banned substances and methods list have to be performance enhancing, or the science has to support their being performance-enhancing. And they either have to also be bad for your health or against the spirit of sport … In order for a substance or method to be on the banned list it has to fulfill two of the three criteria. It might also fulfill all three of the criteria.


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Amanda Magnus is the editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She's also the lead producer for on-demand content at WUNC and has worked on "Tested" and "CREEP."
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.