Supplements: gateway to doping use?

Recently I read an interesting article by colleague-coach Steve Magness about the psychology of doping. He states as follows: “Research has linked the use of numerous supplements to acting as a gateway towards doping”.
But not everything that sounds obvious or logical is true. In order for this statement to be true, cause and effect must be clearly established…..and they just are not! The use of supplements does not automatically lead to the use of doping for quite a few reasons.

The often used “gateway theory”, in former days called the “stepping stone theory’, is mildly stated, far from established. Addiction expert Denise Kandel states: “It doesn’t mean that because you start with tobacco, you’re going to become a heroin addict. That’s completely false reasoning. Many people start smoking. Only a few go on to use heroin. Use of a drug at a lower stage may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for progressing to a higher stage”.

The definition of nutritional supplements and of doping, and the difference between them, is arbitrary. The many changes in the banned list show this. A few examples. Alcohol is on the banned list for some sports, so it is part of everyday nutrition, a supplement, a social drug, a hard drug (think Saudi-Arabia), a medicine or is it doping? Alcohol is also an good example of a substance where the gateway theory does not hold. The best example? One of the biggest biological and social experiments ever staged: the Prohibition in the US.

Interestingly enough, during the Prohibition, the use of alcohol increased, instead of decreased. And so did the relative amount of alcohol-related deaths and organized crime. Alcohol-related deaths, that is what it is called, but in fact those deaths were not related to ethanol, but to the toxic methanol, the chemical produced during the production of alcohol through the improper and inadequate production process by illegal bootleggers. The taste or the attractiveness of alcohol as a substance did not change during the prohibition. The old saying that the forbidden fruit tastes sweeter certainly holds true for alcohol.

The idea that nutritional supplements are a gateway to doping use certainly raises more questions. For instance, the fact that most of the world’s population has been supplemented with nutritional supplements one way or another, knowingly or not: iodine in salt, vitamin A and D in butter, iron in cornflakes and I’ll never forget the spoonful of cod liver oil and the sour-tasting 50 mg vitamin C tablets I had to take in wintertime. Would this really mean a step towards the use of doping?

And what about one of the most effective performance enhancing agents in existence, coffee? Again, is it a social drug, a poison, a nutritional substance , or a PED?
Research is clear: caffeine improves performance on many levels, so for sure it is a doping agent for that matter, but it’s not on the list. Yes, it was, but taken of the list as fast as it appeared. Nowadays some athletes test positive for substances that are on the list, like geranamine, but with much less proven effectiveness than two cups of strong coffee. Also we find banned substances in normal food, stuff like synephrine. Yes, orange marmalade should be on the banned list.

And according to some people, creatine should be on the banned list too, since it’s performance enhancing properties are without any doubt. This would also mean an end to the consumption of steaks and fish. Creatine is a fuel to the body, is produced by the body itself and should be taken in a somewhat higher dose to take effect.
And following this line of thinking: the same can be said of carbohydrates, so pasta-parties before a marathon should also be banned. Would eating two-three plates of pasta before marathon also be considered to be a gateway do doping? Let’s get real here.

This is the catch: the whole concept cannot be taken serious for several reasons, one of them is that the list states that a substance only has to be potentially performance enhancing, isn’t that an interesting concept?

Doping is about cheating, to beat your opponent in an illegal way, at least that is one of the main conclusions of Steve Magness’ article.
Yes, sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s not. This could explain why thousands of recreational athletes and fitness participants use performance enhancing drugs. Not to beat somebody else, since there is nobody to beat and nothing to win. I also think that athletes still would use performance enhancing drugs if they were the only athletes in the world or running 100 meters against the clock, or throwing the discus, without any other competitors around to beat. Just from pure curiosity, just to see how fast your body can sprint or how far you can throw or jump.
Well, one can say, but it’s not the “real, natural” you running that fast or throwing that far. But there isn’t something like the real or natural you. The moment you start training you drift away from your natural untrained “gift” or “pure talent”.

Anyway who cares about that anyway, not the millions of people taking anti-depressants, anxiolytics or sleeping pills, not willing to accept the natural limitations of their organisms. You are unhappy, but the pills make you artificially happy, how can you be happy with that?

Not accepting our natural limitations is one of the main characteristics of mankind! How many people don’t take sleeping pills when they can’t sleep, drink coffee to stay awake, smoke a joint or take a drink to relax. If you think about it, a lot of our activities are geared towards manipulating our environment and ourselves. Just because we just cannot deal with the limitations or the limited resources Mother Nature is presenting to us. We use antidepressants, Viagra, (cosmetic) surgery, weight-loss product – the list is long.
Mountaineers taking oxygen bottles to climb the Everest or K2? Or taking oxygen bottles for diving? What makes you think athletes are different, that they are less inclined to manipulate their limitations or have higher moral values than the average person? Without people who explore, without people who go beyond, without people who look for the edge, we probably would not exist. Explorers, designers, inventors or visionaries do not accept limitations.
I agree with George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

Why aren’t anti-inflammatories and painkillers on the banned list? Many athletes would not even be able to train leave alone to compete or to win, without using them. Again, it is to overcome the natural barrier, pain in this case. Pain indicates a risk for damage to the organism. And since one cannot accept that fact, one takes them. But it is legal.
Just as taking thyroid medication is, as is shown very recently.

Questions, questions, but no answers: why is marihuana on the banned list and is alcohol not. If there is one tip I would give my opponents in any sport: smoke marihuana, one of the most ergolytic substances known to man, one becomes mellow and giggly, not sharp and strong.
And as far as acute or chronic damage for your health is concerned: alcohol beats marihuana all the time.

Is taking drugs the only way to “cheat” ? Certainly not, if I am the 5th athlete in my country in my sport and only the first three go to the Olympics, (in other words: I am not good enough) I can change my nationality or arrange another country to change my nationality. And when necessary one could change ones family name too. Bypassing the rules in a completely legal way.

Or you could change you date of birth, this way a 24 year athlete will beat the 17 and 18 years old competitors. I met to a world champion of 28 years, married and two children, who just the year before became the best of the world in his junior “calendar-age 18” group. Is that cheating or what? Risk of detection: none, sanction: none.

Masters: some athletes feel the drive to compete long after their prime years: the Masters. But aging comes with an almost inevitable loss of health, so especially in older age groups, these athletes have to take medications for their health. Unfortunately for them many of those medications are on the banned list: diuretics, insulin, beta-blockers, some of them have testosterone replacement therapy, others use Viagra, the list is long. But … are they trying to cheat or should they accept the fact that they are aging and stop exercising at a competitive level?

Don’t change your mind, but sometimes one has to consider the more sides of an issue in order to take a good point of view.

Steve Magness’ article:

I won’t even try to make list of articles and books about this subject.

One comment

  1. Lorne Morrow

    Nice post Henk. I find myself checking your blog regularly because I appreciate your sensibility. I got into a minor Twitter battle with Magness last summer because he made a very strident comment about an ex-doper. Sometimes people are too black & white about these issues. You have to see things in the context of situation.

    I played a sport in my youth – not as well as you did – and I saw the pressure that talented athletes were exposed to. Although it drifts a little astray of the topic you have written here, I wrote my own little rant after the Lance Armstrong issue escalated to the point that it got more press than the sport did.

    You may find it tedious, but here is a link to it.

    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom so freely!

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