By: Abimbola Farinde
Athletes taking performance enhancing drugs or drugs that have been banned from the Olympics Games has been a topic of discussion for some time. The goal of most, if not all, competitive events is to determine the greatest athlete based on talent and abilities. Within recent years, doping has been highlighted by athletes testing positive for banned performance enhancing drugs. Possibly even worse than individual doping is the systematic doping that has become an issue with the upcoming Olympic Games, most notably with the Russian track team. Given this growing issue, comprehensive screening measures are being implemented to increase fairness among competitors engaged in these events. Furthermore, this has led to the development of more stringent regulations on the use of performance enhancing drugs, doping among athletes, and the use of unapproved agents to achieve a competitive advantage.
The new regulations have called into question the quality of the laboratories conducting the testing. There are 34 laboratories worldwide that are accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to conduct human control sample analysis. As an accredited lab, they are expected to follow the International Standard for Laboratories, which was updated by the Anti-Doping Committee in June 2016. Currently, however, there are six labs that WADA has suspended due to a failure to follow and/or meet the established guidelines. Of recent and significant concern is that the lab based in Rio De Janeiro, home of this summer’s Olympic games, was suspended in June. It is unclear if the problems associated with the lab will be resolved in time for the Olympic Games, which start August 5th. In the meantime, the Olympic Committee seeks to work with other labs to ensure that there is no gap in the anti-doping samples analysis procedures and that the integrity of samples will be maintained.
As pharmaceutical scientists, what is our role, if any, as these doping issues with high-performance athletes arise? Of course, the intent of pharmaceutical science is not to aid in the use of performance enhancing techniques or substances that can increase an athlete’s ability to succeed in a highly competitive sport. But more and more, the therapies created by pharmaceutical scientists are being abused, which is becoming a timely topic for coaches, athletes, and health care professionals. At most performance levels, it is ultimately up to every single athlete to be aware and mindful of what they are putting into their bodies and recognize whether those substances are on the list of prohibited drugs. Drugs such as stimulants, diuretics, human growth hormones, anabolic steroids, and erythropoietin (EPO or epoetin alfa) are prohibited since they have demonstrated the ability to achieve significant performance-enhancing effects. While benefits have been observed, these substances can also be associated with life-threatening side effects. With the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil, each athlete should be educated on the avoidance of performance-enhancing substances not only because of the potential to give an unfair advantage but also because of their ability to cause harmful or even deadly effects.
Despite the athlete’s responsibility, those of us in the health care profession should also strive to create abuse-deterrent drugs, voice what we know about the negative side effects, and ultimately affect regulations that prevent harm and prevent unfair competitive advantage. If some athletes are given a significant advantage over others as a result of drug enhancement, then the symbol of the Olympic Games will be lost. The potential for having a worldwide system for evaluating and monitoring the ongoing use of performance enhancing drugs should be paramount during this summer’s Olympic Games.