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Doping and Drugs in Women’s Endurance Sports

A history of banned substances in women’s endurance sports and how they are combatting the issue today.

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Lance Armstrong—this name was once synonymous with smashing Tour de France cycling records into a million pieces. But last year, the cyclist sat down with Oprah and admitted to doping with  testosterone, EPO (erythropoietin) and drug transfusions.

Those cycling records were instantly blemished permanently (or erased completely, depending on whom you ask), and Armstrong became a symbol of doping-related disgrace. Perhaps most telling: He talked about how widespread the issue of illegal performance enhancement was, saying, “I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture.” Even more dramatically, he told a French newspaper that his feats were “impossible” sans doping. And just like that, Armstrong cast a light on the complex issue of doping in all areas of athletics, including women’s endurance sports and track and field. How prevalent is doping, and is it ending fair play in our favorite sports?

Fame and Fortune

“The way his case unraveled generated so much debate and forced people to think about the issues and take a stance,” says elite runner Lauren Fleshman. Whether you’re talking Major League Baseball salaries or marathon prize purse money, the promise of bigger bank accounts increases pressure for athletes to win at any cost. And even without big endorsements and financial gains, simply being a champion has age-old allure.

“There is a big industry behind the athletes now, but doping has been part of the sport since the Pan-Hellenic Olympic Games,” notes Edith Zuschmann, an Austrian sports journalist and runner. Elite athletes who wish to remain clean have long been frustrated by this reality. “I had to find a way to dream big without getting too attached to being the best in the world,” says Fleshman. In other words, she had to resign herself to the fact that, while she will not dope, she may lose as a result—to cheaters.

A Short History

Doping has been around for centuries, but anti-doping measures first arose in the ’60s, according to Dick Pound, former president of the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA). “Testing started at the 1968 Olympic Games,” Pound recalls, but the science was far from perfect. Eight years later, at the 1976 Olympics, East Germany won a suspiciously high number of gold medals—40 in total—with the swim team winning 11 of 13 events.

The feat was whispered about everywhere, from the Olympic village to the global media, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the former East German coaches admitted to widespread steroid use and blood transfusions. Many of the athletes (a number of whom were teenagers at the time) denied that they knew they were doping. Some revealed health issues they had as adults due to steroid use—and a few were eventually compensated.

Despite increasingly advanced testing, cheating athletes have slipped through the cracks—for a while at least—like Marion Jones, who in 2007 admitted to doping and dramatically gave back her five Olympic gold medals from the 2000 Sydney Games. Regina Jacobs, a middle-distance runner, competed in three summer Olympics before her career was ended by the dark shadow of steroids in 2003.

Some cases haven’t been so cut and dry. Mary Decker Slaney, for instance, won the 1,500 and 3,000 meters at the 1983 World Championships. However, at the 1996 Olympic Trials, where Decker qualified in the 5,000 meters, she received a positive drug test result, which she attributed to birth control pills. Her ban from competing in the Olympic Games that summer was upheld, but her career was only semi-tarnished. “She is still celebrated as the most famous woman in our sport and in ESPN’s ‘Nine for IX’ series they didn’t even mention her getting caught,” says Fleshman.

Doping has also become a pet cause of several elite names, including Fleshman and British superstar distance runner Paula Radcliffe. The latter defiantly held up a sign at the 2001 World Athletics Championship in Edmonton, which questioned the reinstatement of Olga Yegorova of Russia after she tested positive for a banned substance.

Radcliffe, the marathon world-record holder, also regularly wears red ribbons to show her support of blood testing. “Her example has given me the courage to be a vocal public critic of doping and attempt to shape discourse around ethics in sport,” says Fleshman, who penned an open letter on her blog to Lance Armstrong about his negative effect on the sports world.

Doping Today

All elite runners cross paths with the option to illegally increase their chances of success. The ethical ones, of course, say no.

“My first exposure to the world of doping was when I made my first World Championships team. At the time there were whisperings about a doping underworld that ended up being exposed in the BALCO [Bay Area Lab Co-operative] scandal not long after,” says Fleshman. Twenty were named in the scandal, including baseball stars Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds, as well as track star Marion Jones.

Fleshman says BALCO and its aftermath were sobering. “A shadow was cast on the sport I loved, and I went through a mourning period, realizing that there would always be dopers not getting caught. If I kept doing this sport, I’d have to get used to being beat by dopers and somehow not let it get me down,” she says.

Authorities agree—doping is not going away anytime soon. “Performance-enhancing drugs are a serious concern in both men’s and women’s sports at all levels of competition,” says Annie Skinner, spokesperson for the United States Anti-Doping Association (USADA). Some drugs are seen across all sports and genders. “In general, anabolic agents, stimulants, growth factors and beta-2 agonists are among the most commonly seen prohibited substances,” Skinner explains. “In endurance sports, substances like erythropoietin (EPO) and methods like blood transfusions can also provide a tremendous advantage, as they allow for increased oxygen to the muscles.”

All of these drugs allow for harder and more frequent workouts. “Most cheaters don’t use drugs for competition; they use them for training, allowing them to handle a workload others will find impossible. The physiological changes that this allows makes them capable of superior performances,” says Fleshman. This makes testing only during competition relatively ineffective.

While many athletes make a conscious decision to dope, it’s the coaches who have dollar signs for eyes. “Some athletes are easy targets for vultures. They give away all their power to coaches and managers—but they give up their ethical compass too,” says sports journalist Zuschmann. Athletes like Alex Rodriguez, who took testosterone and human growth hormone, have said that they thought they were only taking supplements—but the public court of opinion generally hasn’t taken this defense very seriously. As a result of his positive tests (and lying to Major League Baseball about why they were positive), he was suspended for the entire 2014 season.

Future of the Sport

The good news is testing is improving by leaps and bounds. “USADA’s anti-doping program includes both in-competition and out-of-competition blood and urine testing. We also conduct longitudinal testing, often referred to as the athlete biological passport, where an athlete’s own levels are monitored over time to look for fluctuations that may indicate the use of performance-enhancing drugs or prohibited methods,” explains Skinner.

Fleshman says that biological passports are effective but expensive and not common enough yet. (Her suggestion is that athletes should pay for the passport in an effort to create a level playing field.) She also believes in a zero-tolerance policy for positive tests. Skinner says that the current standard penalty for a first offense is more lenient: a two-year sanction that can be increased or decreased depending on circumstances.

While cheaters will always find a way to give themselves an unfair edge over the competition, advances in testing technology are happening every year, and a strong passion for creating fair playing standards is being demonstrated, not only by sporting officials and researchers, but also by athletes themselves. As the issue gets the attention it deserves—from the lab to the track—it will become harder and harder for dopers to dupe us.

A Timeline of Doping

Drug testing begins at the Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France.
A former East Germany swim coach admits to systematic doping of the team.
British runner Diane Modahl is suspended from competition following a positive urine test; she unsuccessfully protests, citing improper handling of the sample.
World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) is established.
United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is founded.
Middle-distance runner Regina Jacobs retires after three Olympic Games and one drug test—which was positive for steroids.
Sprinter Kelli White is stripped of her two World Championship gold medals for testing positive for steroids.
Track superstar Marion Jones admits to doping during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and is sentenced to prison a year later due to check fraud.
Three-time Chicago Marathon winner Liliya Shobukhova receives a two-year ban from the Russian Athletics Federation for abnormalities discovered in her biological passport.