Pros & Cons of Performance Enhancing Drugs

Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

Steph has a PhD in Entomology and teaches college biology and ecology.

In this lesson, we will introduce anabolic steroids, a kind of performance-enhancing drug. We will then discuss why some people think performance-enhancing drugs should be legal, and why some people do not.

Technology and Sports

Susan has never really been into sports, but recently, she's been giving running a shot. Since it's a new hobby and she's not sure she will stick with it, she doesn't want to buy expensive running tights and shoes that she finds a bit silly-looking. Susan runs in her sweatpants and an old pair of sneakers that she used to wear lounging around the house.

The sweatpants and old sneakers work just great as long as she runs short distances. But the first time Susan tries to run a whole ten miles, she finds herself in pain. The soles of her ancient sneakers are too thin, and she can feel every piece of gravel on her feet. The thighs of her sweatpants are too loose, causing the skin on the inside of her legs to rub together until it is raw and red. At around eight miles, Susan can't take it anymore. She doesn't give up on running for good, but she finally has to face the fact that technology allows her to be a better runner.

Susan buys a new pair of shoes and some running-appropriate clothing. Over time, her love for the sport builds, and she begins to run marathons. She is now interested in the quirky stuff other runners like, like running magazines, expensive socks, 'carb loading,' and those belts that hold little water bottles. She's getting curious about ultramarathons (races longer than 26.2 miles). What are other technologies Susan can use? Could one of these technologies be performance-enhancing drugs?

Banning Performance-Enhancing Drugs

The most commonly known performance-enhancing drugs are anabolic steroids. Many biomolecules, from cholesterol to estrogen, are in the class called steroids. The word 'steroid' just describes the shape of the molecule. Anabolic steroids are performance-enhancing drugs that are used because they act similarly to the steroid testosterone.

Methyltestosterone, an anabolic steroid
Methyltestosterone, an anabolic steroid

Performance-enhancing drugs can affect your personal appearance in ways that many people consider negative. Women who take performance-enhancing drugs may grow body hair and develop deep voices. Men who take performance-enhancing drugs may have shrunken testicles and enlarged breasts as well as lowered sperm count and erectile dysfunction. Even more alarming is the fact that performance-enhancing drugs have been linked to heart attacks, liver cancer, strokes, and death!

Steroids may also have an effect on the user's personality. They are linked to aggressive behavior, jealousy, and irritability. Using steroids puts you at an increased risk for violence.

More insidiously, some commentators have suggested that steroids are partly responsible for body-image problems in boys because boys compare themselves to athletes with unrealistic body types. In extreme cases, this can result in muscle dysmorphia, an obsessive and unhealthy belief that one isn't muscley enough, which is classed as an eating disorder like anorexia.

In addition, many of us have the strong idea that performance-enhancing drugs are just plain cheating.

Allowing Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Drugs don't just show up out of nowhere. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating drugs. There are risks to using them, but most drugs have some sort of risks associated with them, and these risks are well-known and understood. Sports training inherently entails risks and cost-benefit analysis; in any given year, an estimated 65% of runners will be injured. In addition, legalizing performance-enhancing drugs means that they can be regulated, which will increase the safety of their use. Because performance-enhancing drugs are being used off-label; that is, they are being used for conditions other than those for which they are developed, and there isn't really enough research on the specific effects that these drugs will have on people who use them to improve their sports performance (rather than people who use them to treat a medical condition). Banning performance-enhancing drugs means that many people will turn to their legal cousins, dietary supplements. Dietary supplements that claim to increase testosterone production are not tightly regulated for safety or efficacy. Regulation also means that rules can be made which will allow athletes to use these drugs in a way that is fair to everyone, instead of our current system where some athletes cheat and some do not.

Performance-enhancing drugs can lead athletes to greater and greater feats of athleticism, which leads to greater enjoyment from fans. Mark McGwire, for instance, is believed to have done a lot for the US's waning interest in baseball in the 1990s - until he was caught using performance-enhancing drugs. And who but cyclist Lance Armstrong could have inspired so many Americans to love the Tour de France until he, too, was caught in a drug scandal?

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