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Drugs in sport

5-minute read

Why are some drugs and substances banned in sports?

Using drugs to improve performance in sport may lead to an athlete being banned and may also harm their health. Sporting authorities have banned many drugs and other substances, not just because they might give an athlete an unfair advantage but also because of the wider health risks.

Using drugs in sport undermines values like fair play and teamwork. When sportspeople use drugs, they not only might damage their own health, they also give sport a bad reputation and set a poor example to others.

So-called 'performance-enhancing drugs' or 'performance and image-enhancing drugs' are banned in sports because they could give a sportsperson an unfair advantage over other competitors.

Drugs that can enhance someone's sporting performance include the following.

Illegal drugs

These include stimulants (such as amphetamines, cocaine and MDMA (ecstasy), narcotics (such as heroin, morphine and pethidine) and cannabinoids (such as marijuana and hashish).

Illicit drugs

Drugs found in legal medications can sometimes be used in the wrong way, without a prescription or bought on the black market, to enhance sporting performance. These include anabolic steroids, peptides and hormones.

Legal drugs

Some medicines and supplements are banned by sporting authorities, or contain banned substances. These include some prescription and over-the-counter medicines, some alternative medicines and some sports and dietary supplements. Commonly used medications such as insulin, asthma medication and pseudoephedrine may be banned because they enhance performance.

If you play sport and take medicines, you can check their status at the Global Drug Reference Online (GlobalDRO) website. GlobalDRO provides information about the banned status of specific medicines based on the current WADA Prohibited List. If you need the medicine for a legitimate medical reason, you may be granted a Therapeutic Use Exemption. You can find out more about how to apply on the Sport Integrity Australia website.

Note that GlobalDRO does not contain information on, or that applies to, any dietary supplements.

What health damage can performance drugs cause?

Drugs that are banned in sport can cause several types of health problem. Their effects will depend on the type of drug, how much and how often it is taken, and who is taking it.

Many of these drugs are very safe when prescribed by a doctor and used for medical purposes. However, using them in sport can risk health problems because athletes may use too much, may not be under supervision, or because they may obtain them illegally so they are not regulated.

Stimulants

Stimulants speed up the central nervous system and may be used by athletes to reduce fatigue and increase their alertness. They include amphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy and methylphenidate (Ritalin), as well as nicotine and caffeine. Health risks include:

  • panic attacks
  • heart problems
  • addiction
  • violent behaviour

Anabolic steroids

Anabolic steroids are natural or synthetic substances derived from the hormone testosterone. They are used to increase muscle size and strength. Health risks include:

  • high blood pressure
  • acne
  • liver problems
  • altered menstrual cycle in women
  • reduced sperm production and impotence in men
  • kidney failure
  • heart disease
  • aggression

Human growth hormone

Human growth hormone may be used to increase muscle mass and speed recovery, although these effects are unproven. Health risks include:

  • acromegaly (overgrown head, hands and feet)
  • heart disease and heart failure
  • diabetes
  • muscle and joint pain
  • osteoarthritis
  • high blood pressure

EPO

Erythropoietin (EPO) is a peptide hormone that increases red blood cells and can improve endurance. Health risks include:

  • blood clots
  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • anaemia

Beta blockers

Beta blockers reduce the effects of adrenalin and slow the heart rate, reducing blood pressure and anxiety. This may improve the performance of athletes who need a steady hand (such as in archery or shooting). Health risks include:

  • reduced circulation
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • dry mouth
  • drowsiness
  • asthma attack
  • impotence
  • memory loss
  • heart failure

Diuretics

Diuretics promote loss of water from the body through urination. They may be used by athletes to reduce their weight or to flush other drugs out of the body. Health risks include:

  • dehydration
  • dizziness
  • muscle cramps
  • constipation
  • skin rash
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • heart rhythm problems
  • kidney problems

Find out more here about the harmful effects of drugs in sport.

How are drugs in sport regulated?

Sport Integrity Australia aims to protect the integrity of sport and promote clean and fair competition by implementing anti-doping principles set out in the . It collaborates closely with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an international agency set up to monitor the code.

Almost 200 substances and activities are banned by WADA. The main types of banned substance are:

  • anabolic steroids
  • peptide hormones and growth factors (such as human growth hormone)
  • beta-2 agonists (medicine used for asthma control)
  • hormones
  • diuretics
  • illicit drugs

Activities that can give an athlete an unfair advantage (for example, having a blood transfusion to increase the number of red blood cells in the body) are also banned.

For a complete list of prohibited substances and methods, visit the WADA website.

To raise a concern or report an issue, visit Sport Integrity Australia or call their hotline on 13 000 27232.

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Last reviewed: April 2021


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