When Maradonna and Lance Armstrong were both found to be using performance enhancing drugs, the world had to take a step back and rethink their sports heroes. In many people’s eyes, the greatest footballer and the greatest cyclist had both decided to – in want of a better word – cheat their way to victory. In fact, any use of performance-enhancing drugs – which are decided by the World Anti-Doping Agency – are completely illegal and will cause the user to face suspension or even lifetime bans. However, the question is, what constitutes a performance-enhancing drug?
Why are some drugs chosen to be banned and others aren’t? And, of course, what about THC and cannabis? There is no doubt that certain drugs can give an athlete an unfair advantage, but whether THC sits within this realm is controversial.
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Performance Enhancing Drugs
So, what is a drug and what makes it performance enhancing? A drug in its simplest form is: ‘a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body’. Obviously not all drugs are considered performance-enhancing, as some are prescribed to treat physical or mental health conditions. Therefore, the World Anti-Doping Agency – who have been regulating the use of drugs in sport for millennia – have criteria that decides if a drug should be banned or not. The WADA states that a drug should be banned from sport-use if:
- It has the potential to enhance sport performance;
- It represents an actual or potential health risk to the Athlete;
- It violates the spirit of sport (this definition is outlined in the Code).
As you can see, the criteria is slightly vague and, in a way, all drugs could somehow fit within them. For example, if a athlete uses paracetamol to treat a headache, does that count as performance-enhancing? The most obvious way to decide if a drug would be included in the WADA list would be to judge if it was performance-enhancing or not. Of course there are drugs that have been created and designed to enhance people’s abilities in sports. These same drugs will crop up a lot in various cases where athletes have utilised them for victory. Therefore, let’s take a look at some of the most common performance-enhancing drugs.
Anabolic steroids are used by many athletes to increase their muscle strength. The substance produces testosterone, which is used to help muscle building. For body builders especially, this drug can have some performance-enhancing tendencies. Some more dangerous versions of anabolic steroids are called: ‘designer steroids’. These are designed to be undetectable by drug tests. However, this means that they have not been tested. Some people have suffered infertility and baldness as a consequence of this drug.
Diuretics can help decrease an athlete’s weight by changing the natural balance of electrolytes in the body. The decrease of water in the body, which the substance causes, can lead to a ‘prefered’ weight for the athlete. Also, Diuretics is often called the ‘masking’ agent as the dilution of the urine can sometimes help athletes pass drug tests incorrectly.
Erythropoietin, or EPO, is the same performance-enhancing drug that Lance Armstrong took. Why? Well, EPO is a hormone which is usually used to treat Anemia. The drug increases the amount of oxygen that is carried to the body’s organs. This enhances performance in endurance sports like cycling because it improves the movement of oxygen to the muscles. Again, the overuse of these drugs can cause some detrimental effects.
What Are The Common Traits?
In order to decide if THC should also be part of the WADA performance-enhancing team, then let’s take a look at what are the common traits in these three stated drugs. In all Diuretics, EPO and Anabolic Steroids, there is an example of a shifting of body functions that changes the way the body creates certain chemicals. This creates a short-term atmosphere within the body that enhances the athlete’s ability. However, over time, this short-term shift can cause negative long-term effects. Does THC do the same?
The Wonders of THC
Let’s first remind ourselves of the wonders of tetrahydrocannabinol before judging if it should or should not be part of the WADA list. THC is a major cannabinoid within the cannabis plant and is responsible for the well-known ‘high’ effects. THC is used both recreationally and medically because of its enjoyable and helpful benefits. Recreationally, it can be used to cause:
- Sensory Enhancement
THC is also now being used more to treat physical and mental problems. Although lots of governments around the world have not legalized it, self-medicating THC is common. Here a list of the some of the problems it treats:
- Cancer Symptoms
- Loss of Appetite
- Muscle Spasms
- Chronic Pain
With THC being used by many people both recreationally and medically, the question is: is it on the World Anti-Doping Agency list?
THC In Sport
WADA considers THC to be a performance-enhancing drug. This is despite the fact that many countries have now legalized THC, such as the Netherlands, Spain and 19 states in America. In 2011, the WADA published a paper in Sports Medicine, which highlighted the reasons why cannabis, and more specifically THC, is on the list of performance-enhancing drugs.
- “Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.”
- “Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”
- “Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world”.
The most recent case of cannabis in sports was very recently. In June 2021, Sha’Carri Richardson – the female US Olympic sprinter – was found positive for THC in her medical test. She even went on TV and admitted to the use of it, stating that she was using cannabis to deal with the recent death of her mother. She was given a 1 month ban and will now not race in the 100m sprint in the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This decision, despite being eligible by the WADA rules, has caused much outrage.
Should THC be considered a Performance-Enhancing Drug?
Whilst the World Anti-Doping Agency has one idea, the answer should surely be a no. It seems that the WADA are stuck in time, unable to accept modern cannabis research and are outright stubborn. Margaret Haney, who is a professor of Nerubiology at Colombia University, states that:
“the evidence is extraordinary weak…(cannabis).reduces reaction time and has other effects that would worsen performance ”
In fact, the reason why Richardson’s ban was only 1 month in length was because the WADA accepted that her use of cannabis was not to do with the competition, unrelated to sport performance, and was done because she was suffering bereavement. However, they still felt a ban of any length was necessary.
If we look at THC and compare it to the other performance-enhancing drugs its hard to see why WADA have included it on the list. THC may enhance senses in an enjoyment sense – colours, sounds and tastes – but ultimately, the benefits of the drug don’t reach a performance-enhancing nature. THC has many benefits but, as any cannabis consumer would tell you, sports and THC certainly do not go hand in hand. Sports could become more enjoyable, like having a beer whilst kicking a football around, but competitive sports is not something that THC would help you with. Some people may argue that THC can calm you down or relax you before competing. However, so can meditation. So can alcohol. So can cigarettes. But what do you reckon? Do you think THC should be considered a performance-enhancing drug?
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