Doping Regulations in Sports & Legally Prohibited Substances
Success at the highest level of sports can be life-changing for an athlete and often their family. Thus, incentives abound to do whatever it takes to boost performance. Many athletes have succumbed to the temptation to use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), which may allow them to gain an edge over the competition. Sports leagues and other monitoring organizations have established doping regulations to curb the use of PEDs and punish violators.
All levels of sports take doping seriously because it can undermine the integrity of competition. No fan wants to see games and championships decided by who pops the most effective pills. In addition, PEDs can cause serious health consequences, which may extend for many years after their use and even for a lifetime. These may include cardiovascular side effects, such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, and even premature death in some tragic cases. Athletes using these drugs also may suffer from depression, anxiety, or other psychological conditions, which may lead to self-harm or violent behavior toward others. Potential serious side effects include cancer and hormonal disorders as well.
Types of Performance-Enhancing Drugs
The list of prohibited substances varies across sports and leagues. Common examples of PEDs include anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, anti-estrogen drugs, and many types of stimulants. A substance may be banned altogether, or only during competition. Some drugs that are not PEDs are also banned because an athlete might use them to prevent a PED that they used from being detected in a drug test.
Not every over-the-counter drug is necessarily innocent. Some leagues have banned common medications that may have performance-enhancing effects. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which regulates college sports in the US, even limits the caffeine consumption of college athletes.
In some cases, an athlete may have an appropriate purpose to use a drug that is banned in their sport. They may be able to pursue an exemption for therapeutic use, which would allow them to use the substance. A doctor must confirm that the athlete needs the drug for their medical condition and that their condition cannot be treated with equal effectiveness by an alternative drug that is not banned. A request for a therapeutic use exemption usually will be reviewed by medical experts working for the league or other monitoring organization.
The World Anti-Doping Agency
Perhaps the most famous organization that monitors doping in sports around the world is the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which aims to protect the health of athletes and promote fair competition. Hundreds of sports organizations have signed the WADA Code, which is a set of doping regulations and policies. WADA plays a prominent role in Olympic competition, since the International Olympic Committee, National Olympic Committees, and Olympic Sport International Federations have agreed to uphold the WADA Code. National anti-doping agencies generally enforce these rules. In the US, for example, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) enforces the WADA Code. However, major US sports leagues operate their own anti-doping programs rather than adopting these rules.
Enforcing the WADA Code relies on random testing, which may occur outside competition as well as during competition. Testing for some substances involves collecting urine samples, while testing for other substances involves collecting blood samples. The scope of the testing program in each sport depends on factors such as the type of sport, past known patterns of doping in the sport, and the structure of a season in the sport.
Consequences for Doping Violations
Penalties under the WADA Code can be very harsh, even for a first violation. An athlete who has used a banned substance may be suspended from competition for two years. Repeat offenses may put a career at risk. Penalties in major US sports leagues are generally more lenient. The NBA issues a five-game suspension for a first-time violation (in a season lasting 82 games), while the NFL issues a four-game suspension (about a quarter of a regular season), and the NHL issues a 20-game suspension (also about a quarter of a regular season).