Supplements and drug doping: Where do you draw the line?

200m indoor running track, Kelvin Hall Glasgow (two weeks before it is due to close down)
Image credit: Jessica Oliver-Bell

Jessica Oliver-Bell looks at the fine line between supplements and drugs.

Veronica Campbell-Brown (200m sprinter) is the latest world-class athlete to be caught up in a drug doping scandal. A diuretic was detected in her urine; a classic cover-up for using banned substances, which itself is also banned 1. Stories such as these send ripples of shock, disgust and anguish throughout the rest of the sporting community. The majority of competitors and spectators have in common, the opinion that drug doping is categorically wrong.

But is it really cheating? All athletes do everything they can to be the best they can be and succeed – they support their training with a highly specialised diet, with the optimal balance of protein and carbohydrates, often supplemented with extra salts, sugars, caffeine and vitamins to gain the mental stimulation and physical energy needed to train 2.

The dictionary definitions of what a food-stuff and what a drug is seem to suggest that all food-stuffs can be considered to be drugs because they have the physiological effects of supporting life or growth, and, some drugs can be considered a food-stuff because they are ingested. So, where do you draw the line between certain supplements and so-called drugs? What are the advantages to be had from taking X-drug or Y-drug? The benefits of drug abuse in competition can be short-lived, whilst the side effects on health can be long-lasting, resulting in increased mortality at a younger age 3.

Definition of a food-stuff:

Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.

Definition of a drug:

A substance that has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body, in particular.

In order to make international sporting competitions truly fair for all, it would be necessary to either ban all supplements or permit everyone to take any performance enhancing substances they please. Of course, the former would be virtually impossible to implement – and the latter, would be considered to be unfair by those athletes who make the admirable choice to succeed the ‘natural’ way. Therefore, when it comes to regulating the use of performance enhancing substances in sport, you cannot win.




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