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How drug abuse negates spirit of olympism

By Christian Okpara and Gowon Akpodonor
08 December 2019   |   3:00 am
Purists believe that taking part in international sport is an end in itself, and argue that victory in such competitions only adds to the joy in participation.

Doped… The IOC stripped Russia’s silver medal winners of the women’s biathlon relay at the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

Purists believe that taking part in international sport is an end in itself, and argue that victory in such competitions only adds to the joy in participation. Olympism, which preaches excellence, respect, and friendship, entails that one participates in an activity for which he/she has trained and derives joy in merely being involved in the competition.

It also manifests in the reaction of spectators to all the competitors, not just the winners.

In essence, an athlete should be happy in being involved in competition against top opposition even if he failed to win. But that has not always been the case. The reality is that athletes have for long been seeking advantage since the birth of sporting competition.

Ancient Greeks ate raw testicles before events; cyclists in the Victorian era dabbled with cocaine. In modern times, for those willing to cheat, the obvious source of advantage is performance-enhancing drugs.
Since such amateur sporting events like athletics became money-spinning ventures, participants have sought ways of getting the edge over those competing against them. Some of these athletes have been caught and disgraced, while many managed to avoid detection and retired to enjoy their earnings.

However, there are many such athletes who either died from the effects of the illegal drugs they took or live to suffer life-changing ailments that have made their existence horrible.

Perhaps, the most notorious cases of doping in recent times are the cases of Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, who was banned for several years from athletics after posting a world record time in winning the 100m at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games; Florence Griffith Joyner (Flo-Jo) of the United States, whose achievements, including the 100 metres world record, are seen as products of doping; and her compatriot, Marion Jones-Thompson, who won three gold medals and two bronze medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, but was later stripped of her medals after admitting to steroid use.

Jones was one of the most famous athletes to be linked to the BALCO scandal, which covered more than 20 top-level athletes, including Jones’s ex-husband, shot putter C.J. Hunter, and 100 metres sprinter, Tim Montgomery, the father of Jones’ first child.

The case of Jon Jones, who is regarded as the greatest mixed martial art fighter illustrates how one can dominate a sport. Some argue that he is the greatest fighter to ever step into the octagon. He has defeated elite fighters of multiple generations and is yet to lose a fight decisively. However, there is always going to be a question mark on the greatness of Jon Jones thanks to the controversies he has been involved in outside the octagon.

He was recently banned for four years for failing the USADA drug test one day before the rematch against Daniel Cormier at UFC 214. That is neither the first nor the last time Jones failed a drug test. Before his fight against Daniel Cormier at UFC 200, Jones failed a drug test by USADA, leading to a one-year suspension. That apart, he pooped for the same performance-enhancing substance before his fight against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232, leading the shift of the venue for the event from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on a six days’ notice. Whether Jones has been cheating intentionally or not, it has to be said that there will always be an asterisk on his second to none achievements.

According to WADA, the most commonly used class of performance-enhancing substances are steroids. However, what many people may not know is that steroids occur naturally in our bodies and play an important role in modern medicine. 

“Steroids are hormones produced by the body to help cells, tissues and organs function. Our body’s naturally occurring steroids are created using cholesterol as a starting material. This occurs mainly in the adrenal glands, which are located just above the kidneys.

WADA President, Witold Banka.<br />

“There are two main classes of steroids: corticosteroids and androgenic steroids. Corticosteroids control many natural processes in our bodies such as responding to inflammation and regulating salt and water balance. They can be produced naturally in the body or synthetically manufactured.

“Sometimes the body does not produce enough corticosteroids, such as in Addison’s disease, and taking synthetic steroids can be lifesaving. Similarly, steroids are often prescribed by doctors to help patients to recover from illness.” 

The Economist lists the other major class of steroids as the androgenic steroids, also known as sex steroids. “These include the female sex steroids like estrogen and progesterone and the male sex steroid testosterone. Just like the corticosteroids, androgenic steroids are produced in our bodies but sometimes we use synthetic versions of the androgenic steroids medicinally to treat a wide variety of conditions.

“The combined oral contraceptive pill used by millions of women worldwide, for example, is a combination of synthetic estrogen and synthetic progesterone. The combination of these steroids at the right doses inhibit ovulation and thus prevent pregnancy. “Interestingly, progesterone may also be used to support pregnancy during fertility treatment, but at a different dosing regimen.”

Russia has been involved in an on-going doping saga, with one of the doping scandals leading the World Athletics to ban it from competing at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The world’s doping policy, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), in 2016 detailed a culture of “state-directed” cheating in the Russian team. This is the product of the country’s complex web of power, politics, and sport.

Last year, after tip-offs and suspicious test results in previous events, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned 43 Russian athletes from future Olympic competitions, stripping ten of them of medals they had won in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. In December, after an investigation into drug-screening records leaked by the former head of the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory, it accused Russia of state-sponsored doping. It barred the country from competing in Pyeongchang, condemning the “systematic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system”.

Although Russia is heading the list of doping regulations violators, the use of banned drugs is a global issue that affects many sports.

According to the Economist, an anonymous survey published in Sports Medicine in January 2018, conducted during two international athletics competitions that took place in 2011, found that many more athletes admitted to doping than are caught.

According to WADA, the number of banned performance-enhancers is around 300, but it rises whenever another is discovered to be in use. “They variously lessen pain, increase alertness, speed up recovery and encourage the production of muscle mass or oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Anabolic steroids, synthetic versions of testosterone that were the mainstay of state doping programmes in the Soviet bloc, remain popular. A newer development is blood doping—transfusing blood or taking a synthetic version of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone produced in the kidneys, to increase levels of red blood cells.”

According to the Economist, “Much of the doper’s skill lies in judging quantities and timing. The “Duchess Cocktail”, a mix of steroids created in Russia, is absorbed by swilling it in the mouth without swallowing. That shortens the period during which it can be detected by a blood or urine test. For some drugs micro-dosing—taking an amount too small to detect—can still give an edge. Or doping may happen before an athlete’s career starts in earnest, and thus before she falls under anti-doping rules.”

Science has shown that the use of diuretics, which increase urination and can mask performance-enhancers as a side-effect, is becoming more sophisticated. The development of “designer drugs”—compounds with similar effects to known performance-enhancers but undetectable in testing—means that the authorities are constantly running to stay still. Some athletes may already be using experimental gene therapies, says Paul Dimeo, one of the authors of a forthcoming book, “The Anti-Doping Crisis in Sport”.

Professor Ken Anugweje, who is the head of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) Medical and Anti-Doping Committee, says Nigerian athletes cannot in any way fall victims the way Russian athletes found themselves with the World Anti Doping Agency.

“Doping in Russian sports is a systemic nature and it is different from what we have in Nigeria,” Anugweje told The Guardian in a telephone chat.

“In Russia, the doping programme is organized by their Federation, while in Nigeria, it is done by individual athletes. The only thing we do in Nigeria is to organize anti-doping education for our athletes.

“We do organize anti-doping seminars and workshops for the athletes, especially during preparations for major championships like the African Games, Commonwealth Games, IAAF World Championship and the Olympics Games. The importance of such seminars and workshops is to preach to our athletes the grave consequences of using performance-enhancing drugs at competitions,” he stated.

Professor Anugweje, who is in charge of the Confederation of Africa (CAA) and IAAF High-Performance Centre at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, has been at the forefront of the crusade in ensuring that Nigerian athletes compete clean in sporting events.

“We have to clean up our sports because once an athlete is caught for drug cheating at major championships, the embarrassment goes to both the country and the citizens. Nobody is an object of a witch-hunt when it comes to issues of anti-doping,” Anugweje stated.

Also speaking on Nigeria’s efforts to eliminate doping in sports, the Chairman, NOC Medical Committee, Akinwunmi Amao said the country has avoided doping issues during international competitions through the efforts of the committee in adequately educating, orientating and guiding its athletes.

Speaking on the activities of the commission at a three-day NOC/Olympic Solidarity Sports Medicine Seminar in Lagos entitled:

“Protection of the Health of Clean Athletes,” Amao said that though the country’s representatives were not immune to doping, the NOC had made concerted efforts to properly sensitise its athletes.

“Nigeria is not immune to doping issues but we have been able to control it to the barest minimum. The government has been in control of those issues, especially in terms of education.

“What we do is in terms of getting information and awareness. Most of the athletes themselves have been cooperating with us because it is an individual thing.

“The athletes know what to take and what not to take and when they take their own decision, that are well informed. We already have machinery in place.

“We always try to do what we can because we don’t want to go the way of Russia because of this; our athletes are being tested from time to time.”

He acknowledged that the commission was aware of the dangers inherent in lack of information to the athletes that wear the colours of the country, adding that doping programmes were held before competitions.

“We always give them enough awareness through education even some outreach programmes before major competitions, distributing pamphlets containing what they need to know.

“We also educate many of them on medical issues, nutrition and always discourage them from obtaining drugs across counters.

“The athletes are not the ones in the know; we also educate our doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists on what they need to know. The doctors have the manuals of IOC banned substances.

“The doctors just don’t prescribe anything, they do it within the guidance of laid down laws so that whenever the athletes go for competitions, they don’t run foul of the law,” he said.

Mr. Amao said that any athletes found positive would be dealt with according to the law of the sports.

“We don’t condone doping and any athlete found guilty will be sanctioned according to the dictates of the law of the game.

“We need more encouragement in sports medicine because we need more awareness and other experts to join in moving sports forward.

“Many people are in sports now, and many are still willing to go into sports, so, as the interest keeps expanding, we need more personnel to cater to the athletes,” he said.

The seminar drew sports medicine practitioners and physiotherapists from all the states of the federation.

They gathered to chart the way forward in the sports medicine in the country and to proffer solutions to problems facing the industry.

Even with Dr. Amao’s assurances that Nigeria has been working to ensure none of its athletes is involved in a doping scandal, the country has not been immune to such scandals.

At the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland, teenage weightlifter, Chika Amalaha was stripped of her gold medal after committing an anti-doping violation.

Amalaha’s A and B samples confirmed the adverse analytical findings of amiloride and hydrochlorothiazide, both prohibited as diuretics and masking agents under class 5 of WADA’S Prohibited List.

Amalaha was disqualified from her event at the Games, with her result in the Women’s Weightlifting 53 kilogram competition nullified and her gold medal awarded to Dika Toua of Papua New Guinea.

Irked by the disgrace the incident brought to Nigeria, then Sports Minister and chairman of National Sports Commission, NSC, Dr. Tammy Danagogo vowed that heads would roll over the teenager’s dilemma.

He said, “My heart bleeds for this 16-year old girl. She looks too innocent to commit such an offence. She is naïve. It’s so unfortunate because it was this same girl that did so well in Gaborone, Botswana. And she was tested and was certified clean. We must get to the roots of this and the coaches, and our anti-doping officials have questions to answer. Why didn’t they do their job before coming here to disgrace Nigeria?

“For a young girl like this, we had good plans for her. She is still in shock over what happened to her. She ignorantly took what she took for weight reduction. It is devastating to me and definitely we’ll look at the level of involvement of her coaches, officials, crew and our anti-doping officials. They ought to have detected this before coming to disgrace Nigeria here.

“It’s disappointing that we have highly placed anti-doping officials who did not do their jobs. It is embarrassing and severe punishments will be meted to those officials either for their involvements or negligence as a deterrent. This disgrace is not only on one girl but also on the whole of the contingent and the nation. Enough is enough,” the Minister warned.

However, despite the minister’s threats, no head rolled.

Sources said the issue was taking care of in-house to avoid more embarrassments to the country.

Sometimes, athletes fail drug tests not knowing what they actually took to get such results. Some claim innocence of the offence and go to great lengths to clear their names.

23 years ago, Chioma Ajunwa stunned the world when she leapt to Nigeria’s first gold medal at the Olympic Games. It was the 1996 Games in Atlanta and Ajunwa, who had earlier served some time for failing a drug test, conquered a field that included then world leading jumper, Fiona May of Italy.

Ajunwa’s amazing first round leap of 7.12 meters won her the women’s long jump event at the Atlanta Olympic Games. With her victory, the diminutive athlete became Nigeria’s first and only individual Olympic gold medalist to this day as well as the first African woman to claim the top spot in a field event.

Ajunwa, a policewoman, who has devoted her time to teach young athletes the dangers in doping, is one of the revered voices in the fight against drug abuse.

Ajunwa, who also played football for Nigeria, even playing at the World Cup, failed to pass a drug test in 1992 and was banned for four years from competing.

To this day, Ajunwa maintains her innocence. She told CNN in 2012, “I never one day go to the chemist to buy something to take to enhance my performance.”

She says ultimately, she was a victim of her own culture.

“Here in Nigeria, most of the chemist people, even the doctors, gave to athletes maybe your sick, maybe you are having a kind of pain, have banned the substance in it,” she says.

“When you’re having a problem here — maybe a dislocation or something like that — when you get to a doctor, a doctor will give you something like that, you know, and we didn’t know.”

But after four long years, Ajunwa, who says she never even trained for long jump during her suspension, made history with her gold-winning comeback in Atlanta.

Her Chioma Ajunwa Foundation helps has been at the forefront of the war against doping.

“I don’t want the young ones to go through what I have gone through,” she says. “I want to let them know that the implication of taking drugs — buying things in supermarket, buying things in the grocery shop, you know, is very, very dangerous. And if intentionally, they buy anything that they know is a banned substance, eventually they are being caught, that is the end of it.

“I do not want them to pass through this, so that is why I took it upon myself, to come and start educating them, going from one competition venue to another, to tell them that look, it’s time you know what you are doing, because if you are caught, that’s it.”