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Tuesday, 26 January, 1999, 12:15 GMT
Doping: Banned substances
Diane Modahl
Diane Modahl: Cleared after testing positive for a banned substance
Athletes are banned from taking thousands of chemical substances that experts believe will give them an unfair advantage.

There are five main categories of drug that are banned:

  • Anabolic steroids - these help athletes to build muscle, and to recover faster from training;
  • Peptide hormones - these are substances that occur naturally in the body, but which produce similar effects to the anabolic steroids;
  • Strong analgesic painkillers - such as morphine and other opiates;
  • Stimulants - drugs like amphetamines and cocaine can raise the heart rate and may improve performance;
  • Diuretics - chemicals that help the body to lose fluids, and may, for instance, be useful in helping boxers to meet their fighting weight.

In addition, to the five main categories there are other types of drugs that are subject to restrictions on their use.

These include local anaesthetics and drugs used to treat medical conditions such as cortico-steroids, used to treat asthma, and beta-blockers, used to treat heart conditions.

Dr Gerry McCann, a lecturer in sports medicine at the Centre for Exercise Science and Medicine at Glasgow University, said the list of banned substances was so comprehensive that it was highly unlikely that an athlete could take a legal substance, but register a positive result in a doping test.

However, he said there were two areas that could catch athletes out.

Some cold and cough remedies include banned stimulants such as ephedrin and pseudo-ephedrin.

However, athletes are warned about the risks associated with taking such medications without first checking the ingredients.

Secondly, some herbal remedies contain banned substances. For instance, Olympic sprinter Linford Christie was cleared of wrongdoing despite failing a drugs test when it was discovered he had drunk ginseng tea.

The problem with many herbal drinks is that they do not provide an exhaustive list of contents.

It is also possible that an athlete has a medical condition that has led to abnormally high levels of naturally occurring peptide hormones.

And - as in the case of middle distance runner Diane Modahl - incorrect storing of a urine sample may alter its chemical components.

Positive test

Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson guilty of taking steroids - twice
Dr McCann said: "It a positive test is found two things are likely to have happened. Either the athlete has taken a banned substance by mistake in an over-the-counter medicine, or they have taken a substance which they could only have got hold of illegally.

"If the later is the case then they have either taken it knowingly, or somebody has given it to them without their knowledge. However, quite a lot of these substances have to be taken by injection so it is very unlikely that they will know nothing about it."

Professor Peter Radford, of the sports science department at Brunel University, agreed that there was no way an athlete could have taken anabolic steroids by mistake, but he said there was a "grey area" over some of the other banned substances.

He said: "So many of the proprietory medicines for coughs and colds contain stimulants such as ephedrin that I can see that a young, inexperienced athlete might naively take a chemical in this way, thinking it was perfectly alright.

"However, I would be surprised if an experienced athlete did that because they know how vigilant they need to be."

Professor Radford said another possibility was that vitamin supplements might be contaminated with banned substances.

"A lot of these products are not produced by the major drug houses and nobody can vouch for the way they are prepared,or for their purity."

Fitness supplements

There is also much controversy surrounding a new generation of fitness supplements that are widely used by athletes as a legal alternative to anabolic steroids.

These include creatine, a substance found naturally in the body and in foods such as meat and fish.

Creatine is sold legally over the counter in synthetic form as an amino acid powder. It helps build muscle and speeds recovery from training.

A recent national newspaper poll of top athletes found that more than half had admitted taking the substance.

However, some experts believe creatine could cause long-term damage to health. It has been linked to kidney damage and shorter term problems such as muscle cramping and dehydration.

Other amino acid based supplements that can be legally used by athletes include:

  • Glutamine - claimed to reduce fatigue, build muscle and boost the immune system;
  • Trypthophan or 5HT - claimed to boost production of the "fight or flight" hormone adrenalin;
  • Protein powders - claimed to improve recovery after training and increase strength and muscle growth.
See also:

05 Aug 99 | Medical notes
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