Performance enhancing drugs: the dark side of doping


Sprinter Tim Montgomery was the 100 metre world record holder, but was later caught using performance-enhancing drugs and was banned

Broadcaster: Al Jazeera

Year: 2015

Genre: Documentary


Review by Ella Yabsley

In this Al Jazeera Investigates documentary, former UK hurdler Liam Collins embarks on an undercover investigation seeking to expose ‘the dark side’ of professional sports; blood doping and the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) by professional athletes. This 16-minute clip splices together key sections of the documentary (The full programme can be seen on YouTube as well as on Box of Broadcasts).

I can take a guy with average genetics and I can make him a world champion. I can with drugs. Oh absolutely.

The documentary stirred controversy, primarily for featuring accusations regarding several NFL footballers,  notably Peyton Manning, who went on to steer his Denver Broncos team to success at Superbowl 50 before announcing his retirement. More importantly, the documentary highlights loopholes in the drug testing regimes of several popular sports. Athletes play a ‘cat and mouse game’ with the testing system; timely drug administration combined with an awareness of testing procedures results in athletes coming up negative in tests.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is responsible for publishing lists of prohibited substances and oversees compliance of anti-doping policies . In January 2016, Russian athletes were banned from entering athletic competitions worldwide due to allegations of a ‘state-sponsored’ blood doping programme.  In consequence, Russia are currently banned from taking part in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics (ITV News broadcasted an update on the scandal on the 14 Jan).

Below is a table of some of the type of drug, mechanism of action, effects on the body and legal status for PEDs mentioned in the documentary. Addition resources for extra reading on the topic are listed at the bottom of the page.


Performance-enhancing drugs mentioned in the documentary (Click on image to access PDF version)PED table

Whilst researching each drug, I was astounded to discover much copy-pasted information from pseudoscience sources (mostly aimed at bodybuilders). Many PEDs can be easily purchased online evading regulations by being labelled ‘not intended for human consumption’. Using medicines bought online, not least PEDs, is risky since the actual identity of the active components, the concentration and the hygiene during preparation are hard to substantiate. Long term usage might be especially problematic, whether or not the drug is what the user believes it to be.

Sufficiently motivated people are not going to stop taking illegal substances if they are readily available online. A combination of better testing (in and out of competition) and improved education and regulation are going to be more effective that notional bans. Use of PEDs, particularly anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), may be taboo in wider society but remains acceptable and popular within gym and bodybuilding cultures. It is very difficult to determine how many people are using AAS. We know that 10.6 million women in the USA take steroid hormones every day in the form of the contraceptive pill because this is regulated. However the illegal sourcing of AAS, combined with general societal stigma about their use and consequences for sports people being caught using such drugs in non-prescribed ways means that professional athletes, as well as recreational gym goers, prefer to remain anonymous.

Extra resources:

Thompson (2012) Performance Enhancement: Superhuman athletes Nature News

Drug Testing Used in Sports

Effects and side-effects of Human growth hormone (hGH), and testing Wada

Berman (2013) Toradol and Professional Sports: Time to End This Love Affair? Medpage Today



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