Lately there has been a renewed conversation about the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the wake of Maria Sharapova’s positive test result for the drug meldonium. Since Sharapova, the list* of athletes that have been caught for using the drug has grown to include:
Add to the growing list of athletes, there is also the tug of war – to put it mildly – between the NHL and WADA regarding doping testing of hockey players during the World Cup of Hockey (WCoH). As the WCoH is an NHL organised tournament, it is not bound by the same rules or tests as, say the World Championships would be, which fall under IIHF jurisdiction where athletes are tested in accordance with WADA procedures.
Further from the realm of hockey, it was only this week that Jarred Tinordi of the Phoenix Coyotes was found to have tested positive for a forbidden substance in the NHL’s Performance Enhancing Drug tests. Earlier this season, Shawn Horcoff was also found to have tested positive. Both received a suspension of 20 games without pay. Since 2007, there have been five players who have tested positive for PEDs in the NHL, but the trouble is that the NHL’s tests are conducted behind closed doors and it does not reveal a whole lot of information on the tests, to the point that the wider public could almost forget that the NHL does test its athletes.
In the wake of the Sharapova test result and the NHL-WADA struggle, Teemu Selanne, spoke out in his blog about testing, going as far as to say that all players who test positive for PEDs should receive a lifetime ban. You can read Selanne’s blog here. According to Selanne’s post an NHL player gets tested 4-6 times during the season by the league, which is not that often if you think about how long the season is.
It is rather surprising that since 2007 only five NHLers have been found to have tested positive. One would think that in a competitive environment such as the NHL, finding a competitive edge is prone to push some people to look at ways to enhance their performance. The trouble is that because the testing is conducted behind ‘closed’ doors it is difficult to know what drugs the NHL is looking for.
For example, Washington Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom tested positive for Pseudo-ephedrine during the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and was banned from playing in the Olympic final. In the wake, it transpired that ‘Sudies’ are quite common in the NHL and it is not one of the drugs tested for.
So to the wider conversation in sports: should we be surprised that some athletes turn to PEDs to gain an edge and are we too blue-eyed to the fact that we assume that one sport is completely clean?
To answer the first part of the question first – and this is based on my opinion only, not facts – no it is not surprising that athletes turn to PEDs. I’m not defending athletes that use PEDs, but I sort of understand why they do it. When you are in the ultra competitive world of professional sports, you know your shelf life as an athlete is extremely limited and your career prime is measured in a matter of few years. You can train your bags off, but there will always be that fear in the back of your head that someone else is going to be better than you. The pressures to perform in competition are huge and to add to this, it is how you need to make a living. Essentially, the more you win, the more you’ll earn through prize money, the more your profile grows along with endorsement deals.
Say you made it to the top completely clean and you notice age is starting to catch up to you and your doctor says, “Here’s this drug that will help with your performance. It’s not a 100% kosher, but it will help you perform a little bit better.” The decision might not be instant to go “Give it me”, but the seed has been planted. Once you try it in training a few times, you notice a difference in performance and then, like with narcotics, you soon realise that you need it more and more to boost your performance. Going without it makes you nervous and you psychologically you feel like you can’t play as well without it.
Professional athletes are willing to go to extraordinary measures to be at the top of their game and perform in situations that most common people would not know how to handle. In the 1980s and 1990s there was a study carried out where a group of athletes and people were asked a hypothetical question of whether they would take a drug that meant they would win a championship, but would mean they’d die five years later. In the 80s and 90s over 50% of people said they would, but in recent years that number has dropped.
Athletes often say they are willing to do anything and everything to win, so I am not the least bit surprised that in every event and/or sport, there are revelations that some people have taken PEDs. What I do find sad, is that some sports hold their drugs testing behind closed doors. If we really wanted to eliminate PEDs from sports all sports, regardless of governing bodies, need to adhere to the same standard of testing and be completely transparent about their testing methods and number of people tested and when they were tested.
While in hockey, only five players have been caught, I think that it is rather naïve to think that hockey doesn’t have a wider PED issue. Because of the closed door policy in the NHL we don’t tend to find out the extent of it. Similarly in leagues outside of the USA, we don’t know the frequency of drug tests that players have to face throughout the season.
When it comes to athletes getting caught, they should acknowledge that they are responsible of what they put in their bodies. Like in Sharapova’s case, she said that she has been taking the drug for a number of years for a medical reason, but she did not even make her medical records available during the press conference to dispel the doubts. Her defence seems rather botched given the number of other athletes that have been caught using the same substance. But similarly, the substance, meldonium, was only recently added to the list of banned substances, so it is curious of how many people are currently using substances that are not on the banned substance list, but still give a performance boost.
Atheltes are willing to do anything and everything in their power to win. It is wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if many of the sporting icons we look up to, use ‘substances’ that improve performance that are not on a banned substance list. Professional sport is a cut-throat industry, where your chance to capitalise on your peak is limited. However, at the end of the day, it is solely the athlete’s responsibility on what they put in their bodies and if caught using a banned substance, trying to shift blame on anyone else – like medical team for example – is dishonest to the sport and the fans of the sport.
P.S. If people want, I am more than happy to publish the list of supplements that I use and should there ever be a request, I will more than happily submit a sample for PED testing.