Expert Commentary

Performance-enhancing drugs in athletics: Research roundup

2015 roundup of research on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in athletics and academics as well as their potential health effects.

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Performance-enhancing drugs have a long history in sports, of course, but pharmacological research has led to a surge in the number of substances available, each with its own potential for misuse.

Given the potential financial rewards of athletic success, it’s no surprise that we’ve been witness to a seemingly endless procession of allegations and scandals. Sluggers Barry Bonds (steroids) and Alex Rodriguez (human growth hormone); cyclists Lance Armstrong (EPO), Floyd Landis (testosterone) and Alberto Contador (clenbuterol); runners Tyson Gay (steroids) and Justin Gatlin (testosterone); and golfer Vijay Singh (IGF-1) are only some of the more prominent professionals implicated in such behavior. The complicity of medical professionals and shadowy labs is often involved, and a 2015 report from the International Cycling Union (UCI) found the sport’s own governing body bore significant responsibility.

Not surprisingly, hard numbers on rates of usage are difficult to come by, but anecdotal evidence isn’t lacking and anonymous surveys have provided some insight. Questionable use of medications and supplements have also been reported in the U.S. armed forces, fire and police departments, amateur athletics, and even high schools.

Below is a selection of studies on a range of issues related to performance-enhancing drugs. It has sections on their potential economic impacts, prevalence, health effects and athletes’ attitudes. For additional studies on these topics, you can search PubMed, which is the federal clearinghouse for all medical research. At bottom, we have also included some studies relating to cognitive-enhancing drugs and the related academic dimensions of this issue.




“The Economics of Corruption in Sports: The Special Case of Doping”
Dimant, Eugen; Deutscher, Christian. Edmond J. Safra Working Papers, No. 55, January 2015.

Abstract: “Corruption in general and doping in particular are ubiquitous in both amateur and professional sports and have taken the character of a systemic threat. In creating unfair advantages, doping distorts the level playing field in sporting competition. With higher stakes involved, such distortions create negative externalities not only on the individual level (lasting health damages, for example) but also frictions on the aggregate level (such as loss of media interest) and erode the principle of sports. In this paper, we provide a comprehensive literature overview of the individual’s incentive to dope, the concomitant detrimental effects and respective countermeasures. In explaining the athlete’s motivation to use performance enhancing drugs, we enrich the discussion by adapting insights from behavioral economics. These insights help to understand such an athlete’s decision beyond a clear-cut rationale but rather as a product of the interaction with the underlying environment. We stress that in order to ensure clean sports and fair competition, more sophisticated measurement methods have to be formulated, and the respective data made publicly available in order to facilitate more extensive studies in the future. So far, the lack of data is alarming, especially in the area of elite sports where the stakes are high and doping has a substantial influence.”



“The Frequency of Doping in Elite Sport: Results of a Replication Study”
Pitsch, Werner; Emrich, Eike. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, October 2012, Vol. 47, No. 5, 559-580. doi: 10.1177/1012690211413969.

Abstract: “The difficulty of measuring the prevalence of doping in elite sport is a recurring topic in the scientific literature on doping. The Randomized Response Technique is a method for asking such embarrassing or even threatening questions while allowing the respondents to answer honestly. It was used to measure the prevalence of doping among German squad athletes by Pitsch et al. (2005, 2007). In a replication study with better sampling control, it was possible to replicate the general trend of the data from the 2005 study…. The paper-based survey resulted in a rate of 10.2% ‘honest dopers,’ irrespective of the disciplines, obtained with the question: ‘Have you ever knowingly used illicit drugs or methods in order to enhance your performance?’ By adding the rate of cheaters (24.7%), whose behaviour the researchers know nothing about, one can calculate the interval (10.2%, 34.9%), which should include the true rate of dopers throughout their career among German elite athletes. In contrast, this means that the larger proportion of athletes, namely, 65.2%, represents ‘honest non-dopers.’ In the 2008 season, this figure was 65%.”


“Growth Hormone Doping in Sports: A Critical Review of Use and Detection Strategies”
Baumann, Gerhard P. Endocrine Reviews, April 2012, Vol. 33, No. 2 155-186. doi: 10.1210/er.2011-1035.

Abstract: “[Growth hormone] is believed to be widely employed in sports as a performance-enhancing substance. Its use in athletic competition is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and athletes are required to submit to testing for GH exposure…. The scientific evidence for the [performance-enhancing characteristics] of GH is weak, a fact that is not widely appreciated in athletic circles or by the general public. Also insufficiently appreciated is the risk of serious health consequences associated with high-dose, prolonged GH use. This review discusses the GH biology relevant to GH doping; the virtues and limitations of detection tests in blood, urine, and saliva; secretagogue efficacy; IGF-I doping; and information about the effectiveness of GH as a performance-enhancing agent.”


“Supplements in Top-Level Track and Field Athletes”
Tscholl, Philippe; Alonso, Juan M.; Dollé, Gabriel; Junge, Astrid; Dvorak, Jiri. American Journal of Sports Medicine, January 2010, Vol. 38, No. 1, 133-140. doi: 10.1177/0363546509344071.

Abstract: “Analysis of 3,887 doping control forms undertaken during 12 International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships and one out-of-competitions season in track and field. Results: There were 6,523 nutritional supplements (1.7 per athlete) and 3,237 medications (0.8 per athlete) reported. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs; 0.27 per athlete, n = 884), respiratory drugs (0.21 per athlete, n = 682), and alternative analgesics (0.13, n = 423) were used most frequently. Medication use increased with age (0.33 to 0.87 per athlete) and decreased with increasing duration of the event (from sprints to endurance events; 1.0 to 0.63 per athlete). African and Asian track and field athletes reported using significantly fewer supplements (0.85 vs. 1.93 per athlete) and medications (0.41 vs. 0.96 per athlete) than athletes from other continents. The final ranking in the championships was unrelated to the quantity of reported medications or supplements taken. Compared with middle-distance and long-distance runners, athletes in power and sprint disciplines reported using more NSAIDs, creatine, and amino acids, and fewer antimicrobial agents. Conclusion: The use of NSAIDs in track and field is less than that reported for team-sport events. However, nutritional supplements are used more than twice as often as they are in soccer and other multisport events; this inadvertently increases the risk of positive results of doping tests.”


“Alcohol, Tobacco, Illicit Drugs and Performance Enhancers: A Comparison of Use by College Student Athletes and Nonathletes”
Yusko, David A.; et al. American Journal of Sports Medicine, August 2010. doi: 10.3200/JACH.57.3.281-290.

Abstract: Compares the prevalence and pattern of substance use in undergraduate student athletes and nonathletes from 2005-2006. Data was collected using questionnaires from male (n = 418) and female (n = 475) student athletes and nonathletes from 2005-2006 to assess prevalence, quantity, and frequency of alcohol and drug use, and to determine patterns of student athletes’ alcohol and drug use during their athletic season versus out of season. Male student athletes were found to be at high risk for heavy drinking and performance-enhancing drug use. Considerable in-season versus out-of-season substance use fluctuations were identified in male and female student athletes. Additional, and possibly alternative, factors are involved in a student athlete’s decision-making process regarding drug and alcohol use, which suggests that the development of prevention programs that are specifically designed to meet the unique needs of the college student athlete may be beneficial.”


Health effects

“Performance Enhancing Drug Abuse and Cardiovascular Risk in Athletes”
Angell, Peter J.; Chester, Neil; Sculthorpe, Nick; Whyte, Greg; George, Keith; Somauroo, John. British Journal of Sports Medicine, July 2012. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091186.

Abstract: “Despite continuing methodological developments to detect drug use and associated punishments for positive dope tests, there are still many athletes who choose to use performance- and image-enhancing drugs. Of primary concern to this review are the health consequences of drug use by athletes…. We will address current knowledge, controversies and emerging evidence in relation to cardiovascular (CV) health of athletes taking drugs. Further, we delimit our discussion to the CV consequences of anabolic steroids and stimulant (including amphetamines and cocaine) use. These drugs are reported in the majority of adverse findings in athlete drug screenings and thus are more likely to be relevant to the healthcare professionals responsible for the well-being of athletes.”


“Illicit Anabolic-Androgenic Steroid Use”
Kanayama, Gen; Hudson, James I.; Pope Jr., Harrison G. Hormones and Behavior, Volume 58, Issue 1, June 2010, Pages 111-121. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.09.006.

Abstract: “The anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are a family of hormones that includes testosterone and its derivatives. These substances have been used by elite athletes since the 1950s, but they did not become widespread drugs of abuse in the general population until the 1980s. Thus, knowledge of the medical and behavioral effects of illicit AAS use is still evolving. Surveys suggest that many millions of boys and men, primarily in Western countries, have abused AAS to enhance athletic performance or personal appearance. AAS use among girls and women is much less common. Taken in supraphysiologic doses, AAS show various long-term adverse medical effects, especially cardiovascular toxicity. Behavioral effects of AAS include hypomanic or manic symptoms, sometimes accompanied by aggression or violence, which usually occur while taking AAS, and depressive symptoms occurring during AAS withdrawal. However, these symptoms are idiosyncratic and afflict only a minority of illicit users; the mechanism of these idiosyncratic responses remains unclear. AAS users may also ingest a range of other illicit drugs, including both “body image” drugs to enhance physical appearance or performance, and classical drugs of abuse. In particular, AAS users appear particularly prone to opioid use. There may well be a biological basis for this association, since both human and animal data suggest that AAS and opioids may share similar brain mechanisms. Finally, AAS may cause a dependence syndrome in a substantial minority of users. AAS dependence may pose a growing public health problem in future years but remains little studied.”


“Adverse Health Effects of Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids”
Van Amsterdama, Jan; Opperhuizena, Antoon; Hartgensb, Fred. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, Volume 57, Issue 1, June 2010, Pages 117-123. doi: 10.1016/j.yrtph.2010.02.001.

Abstract: “Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are synthetic drugs derived from testosterone. Illegally, these drugs are regularly self-administered by body builders and power lifters to enhance their sportive performance. Adverse side effects of AAS include sexual dysfunction, alterations of the cardiovascular system, psyche and behavior, and liver toxicity. However, severe side effects appear only following prolonged use of AAS at high dose and their occurrence is limited…. The overwhelming stereotype about AAS is that these compounds cause aggressive behavior in males. However, the underlying personality traits of a specific subgroup of the AAS abusers, who show aggression and hostility, may be relevant, as well. Use of AAS in combination with alcohol largely increases the risk of violence and aggression. The dependence liability of AAS is very low, and withdrawal effects are relatively mild. Based on the scores for acute and chronic adverse health effects, the prevalence of use, social harm and criminality, AAS were ranked among 19 illicit drugs as a group of drugs with a relatively low harm.”


“Effects of Growth Hormone Therapy on Exercise Performance in Men”
Triay, Jessica M.; Ahmad, Bushra N. Trends in Urology & Men’s Health, July/August 2012, Vol. 3, Issue 4, 23-26. doi: 10.1002/tre.274.

Conclusions: “In the athletic arena, [growth hormone] doping is considered to be widespread and used in combination with other agents, and regimens vary depending on individual preferences and cost implications…. It must be recognised that the effects of GH administration in adults with a normal GH/IGF-1 axis are not comparable to those in GH deficiency and that the complexity of processes influencing GH release and peripheral actions means that overall performance should be considered as opposed to isolated effects. Although studies to date have been small in both subject numbers and treatment times, they have demonstrated measurable changes in GH and IGF-1 levels, as well as possible deleterious effects on exercise performance that should be taken seriously.”


“Performance-Enhancing Drugs on the Web: A Growing Public-Health Issue”
Brennan, Brian P.; Kanayama, Gen; Pope Jr., Harrison G. American Journal on Addictions, March-April 2013, Vol. 22, Issue 2, 158-161. doi: 10.1111/j.1521-0391.2013.00311.x.

Abstract: “Today’s Internet provides extensive “underground” guidelines for obtaining and using illicit substances, including especially anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) and other appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs (APEDs). We attempted to qualitatively characterize APED-related Internet sites. We used relevant Internet search terms [and] found thousands of sites involving AAS and other APEDs. Most sites presented an unabashedly pro-drug position, often openly questioning the qualifications and motivations of mainstream medical practitioners. Offers of AAS and other APEDs for sale, together with medical advice of varying legitimacy, was widespread across sites. Importantly, many sites provided detailed guidelines for exotic forms of APED use, some likely associated with serious health risks, which are probably unknown to most practicing clinicians.”



“Doping in Sport: A Review of Elite Athletes’ Attitudes, Beliefs and Knowledge”
Morente-Sánchez, Jaime; Zabala, Mikel. Sports Medicine, March 2013. doi: 10.1007/s40279-013-0037-x.

Abstract: “Although most athletes acknowledge that doping is cheating, unhealthy and risky because of sanctions, its effectiveness is also widely recognized. There is a general belief about the inefficacy of anti-doping programmes, and athletes criticise the way tests are carried out. Most athletes consider the severity of punishment is appropriate or not severe enough. There are some differences between sports, as team-based sports and sports requiring motor skills could be less influenced by doping practices than individual self-paced sports. However, anti-doping controls are less exhaustive in team sports. The use of banned substance also differs according to the demand of the specific sport. Coaches appear to be the main influence and source of information for athletes, whereas doctors and other specialists do not seem to act as principal advisors. Athletes are becoming increasingly familiar with anti-doping rules, but there is still a lack of knowledge that should be remedied using appropriate educational programmes. There is also a lack of information on dietary supplements and the side effects of [performance-enhancing substances].”


“Age and Gender Specific Variations in Attitudes to Performance Enhancing Drugs and Methods”
Singhammer, John. Sport Science Review, December 2012. doi: 10.2478/v10237-012-0017-3.

Abstract: “Using a population-based cross-sectional sample of 1,703 Danish men and women aged 15-60 years, the present study examined age and gender variation in attitudes to performance enhancing drugs and methods…. Overall, participants held negative attitudes to drugs and methods enhancing predominantly cognitive-abilities-enhancing performance drugs and to appearance-modifying methods, but were positive to drugs for restoring physical functioning conditions. However, attitudes varied nonlinearly across age. Lenient attitudes peaked at around age 25 and subsequently decreased. Lenient attitudes to use of drugs against common disorders decreased in a linear fashion. No gender differences were observed and attitude did not vary with level of education, self-reported health or weekly hours of physical activity.”


“Drugs, Sweat and Gears: An Organizational Analysis of Performance Enhancing Drug Use in the 2010 Tour De France”
Palmer, Donald; Yenkey, Christopher. University of California, Davis; University of Chicago. March 2013.

Abstract: “This paper seeks a more comprehensive explanation of wrongdoing in organizations by theorizing two under-explored causes: the criticality of a person’s role in their organization’s strategy-based structure, and social ties to known deviants within their organization and industry. We investigate how these factors might have influenced wrongdoing in the context of professional cyclists’ use of banned performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in advance of the 2010 Tour de France….. We find substantial support for our prediction that actors who are more critical to the organization’s strategy-based structure are more likely to engage in wrongdoing. Further, we find that while undifferentiated social ties to known wrongdoers did not increase the likelihood of wrongdoing, ties to unpunished offenders increased the probability of wrongdoing and ties to severely punished offenders decreased it. These effects were robust to consideration of other known causes of wrongdoing: weak governance regimes and permissive cultural contexts, performance strain, and individual propensities to engage in wrongdoing.”


“Elite Athletes’ Estimates of the Prevalence of Illicit Drug Use: Evidence for the False Consensus Effect”
Dunn, Matthew; Thomas, Johanna O.; Swift, Wendy; Burns, Lucinda. Drug and Alcohol Review, January 2012, Vol. 31, Issue 1, 27-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2011.00307.x.

Abstract: “The false consensus effect (FCE) is the tendency for people to assume that others share their attitudes and behaviours to a greater extent than they actually do…. The FCE was investigated among 974 elite Australian athletes who were classified according to their drug use history. Participants tended to report that there was a higher prevalence of drug use among athletes in general compared with athletes in their sport, and these estimates appeared to be influenced by participants’ drug-use history. While overestimation of drug use by participants was not common, this overestimation also appeared to be influenced by athletes’ drug use history.”


“The Role of Sports Physicians in Doping: A Note on Incentives”
Korn, Evelyn; Robeck, Volker. Philipps-Universitat, Marburg, March 2013.

Abstract: “How to ban the fraudulent use of performance-enhancing drugs is an issue in all professional — and increasingly in amateur — sports. The main effort in enforcing a ‘clean sport’ has concentrated on proving an abuse of performance-enhancing drugs and on imposing sanctions on teams and athletes. An investigation started by Freiburg university hospital against two of its employees who had been working as physicians for a professional cycling team has drawn attention to another group of actors: physicians. It reveals a multi-layered contractual relations between sports teams, physicians, hospitals, and sports associations that provided string incentives for the two doctors to support the use performance-enhancing drugs. This paper argues that these misled incentives are not singular but a structural part of modern sports caused by cross effects between the labor market for sports medicine specialists (especially if they are researchers) and for professional athletes.”

“Socio-economic Determinants of Adolescent Use of Performance Enhancing Drugs”

Humphreys, Brad R.; Ruseski, Jane E. Journal of Socio-Economics, April 2011, Vol. 40, Issue 2, 208-216. doi: 10.1016/j.socec.2011.01.008.

Abstract: “Evidence indicates that adolescents (athletes and non-athletes use performance enhancing drugs. We posit that adolescent athletes have different socio-economic incentives to use steroids than non-athletes. We examine adolescent steroid use using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. Multi-sport upperclassmen and black males have a higher probability of steroid use. Steroid use is associated with motivations to change physical appearance and experimentation with illicit substances. These results suggest there are different socio-economic motivations for adolescent steroid use and that steroid use is an important component of overall adolescent drug use.”


Cognitive-enhancing drugs

“Randomized Response Estimates for the 12-Month Prevalence of Cognitive-Enhancing Drug Use in University Students”
Dietz, Pavel; et al. Pharmacotherapy, January 2013, Vol. 33, Issue 1, 44-50. doi: 10.1002/phar.1166.

Results: “An anonymous, specialized questionnaire that used the randomized response technique was distributed to students at the beginning of classes and was collected afterward. From the responses, we calculated the prevalence of students taking drugs only to improve their cognitive performance and not to treat underlying mental disorders such as attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder, depression, and sleep disorders. The estimated 12-month prevalence of using cognitive-enhancing drugs was 20%. Prevalence varied by sex (male 23.7%, female 17.0%), field of study (highest in students studying sports-related fields, 25.4%), and semester (first semester 24.3%, beyond first semester 16.7%).”


“The Diversion and Misuse of Pharmaceutical Stimulants: What Do We Know and Why Should We Care?”
Kaye, Sharlene; Darke, Shane. Addiction, February 2012, Vol. 107, Issue 3, 467-477. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2011.03720.x.

Results: “The evidence to date suggests that the prevalence of diversion and misuse of pharmaceutical stimulants varies across adolescent and young adult student populations, but is higher than that among the general population, with the highest prevalence found among adults with attention deficit-hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and users of other illicit drugs. Concerns that these practices have become more prevalent as a result of increased prescribing are not supported by large-scale population surveys…. Despite recognition of the abuse liability of these medications, there is a paucity of data on the prevalence, patterns and harms of diversion and misuse among populations where problematic use and abuse may be most likely to occur (e.g. adolescents, young adults, illicit drug users). Comprehensive investigations of diversion and misuse among these populations should be a major research priority, as should the assessment of abuse and dependence criteria among those identified as regular users.”


“Adderall Abuse on College Campuses: A Comprehensive Literature Review”
Varga, Matthew D. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 2012, Vol. 9, Issue 3. doi: 10.1080/15433714.2010.525402.

Abstract: “Prescription stimulant abuse has dramatically increased over the past 10 years, but the amount of research regarding college students and illicit prescription stimulant use is still very limited. This has important implications for college mental health professionals and higher education administrators. In this comprehensive literature review the author explores factors contributing to illicit use, self-medication, and recreational use of controlled prescription stimulants; discusses the potential consequences for those students abusing stimulants; and provides recommendations for educating, combating, and assisting students who illicitly use prescription stimulants on college campuses.”


“A Comparison of Attitudes Toward Cognitive Enhancement and Legalized Doping in Sport in a Community Sample of Australian Adults”
Partridge, Brad; Lucke, Jayne; Hall, Wayne. AJOB Primary Research, November 2012. doi: 10.1080/21507716.2012.720639.

Abstract: “This article compares public attitudes toward the use of prescription drugs for cognitive enhancement with the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport. We explore attitudes toward the acceptability of both practices; the extent to which familiarity with cognitive enhancement is related to its perceived acceptability; and relationships between the acceptability of cognitive enhancement and legalized doping in sport. Of 1,265 [survey] participants, 7% agreed that cognitive enhancement is acceptable; 2.4% of the total sample said they had taken prescription drugs to enhance their concentration or alertness in the absence of a diagnosed disorder, and a further 8% said they knew someone who had done so. These participants were twice as likely to think cognitive enhancement was acceptable. Only 3.6% of participants agreed that people who play professional sport should be allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs if they wanted to. Participants who found cognitive enhancement acceptable were 9.5 times more likely to agree with legalized doping.”


Keywords: drugs, youth, sports, cheating, higher education, corruption, ADHD, research roundup

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