Doping is widespread not only in elite-level sports, but also in amateur sports. German doping expert Mario Thevis spoke to DW about the health risks that athletes expose themselves to by using banned substances.
DW: Earlier this week police in dozens of countries in Europe and beyond executed "Operation Viribus" in which hundreds of suspects were arrested. Around 3.8 million doping substances and counterfeit medicines were seized – including 24 tons of steroid powder alone. Were you surprised by the extent of what was uncovered?
Mario Thevis: The extent of what was uncovered and how well the coordinated operation was carried out was both impressive and surprising. However, in Germany alone about a ton of illegal substances are seized every year, so if you break down the total amount to the individual countries, this falls into the range that would be expected.
The operation demonstrated that doping is also a very common problem in amateur sports – even more than at the elite level. What motivates amateur athletes to take banned substances, even though they – unlike professionals – don't earn money for competing in their chosen sport?
The answer is probably has something to do with sports psychology. The body cult or the desire to improve one's personal best is often behind it. Since there are not drug tests at this level and there literally are no limitations to access to these substances, a particularly high health risk is associated with it.
Operation Viribus included raids on numerous fitness studios. Are these the main places where amateur athletes come into contact with banned substances, or are performance-enhancing drug (PED) also being consumed in other sports?
I think that in the percentage, the number of athletes working out in fitness studios who use them may be higher than in other sports. However, no sport can be excluded. The operation showed once again that this is a major problem that does not apply exclusively to elite-level sport.
The use of performance-enhancing substances is understood to be particularly prevelant among amateur bodybuilders
Larger quantities, unknown substances
Athletes who take banned drugs will experience higher performance levels, possibly lose weight, and feel fitter in general. These are the positives. But what health risks do are they exposing themselves to?
That depends on what they consume, how much they consume and over what period of time. Long-term health risks are particularly important in the case of anabolic substances and steroids. We are talking here about cardiovascular diseases, or in the case of women athletes, a deepening of the voice, changes to the menstrual cycle – or her not even getting her period. So there are many risks associated with this.
But there are also other risks associated with the lax or even non-existent quality control of such products. This means that you can wind up consuming much larger quantities than you actually intended. Or that you consume products than what you meant to take. This can lead to acute health risks. In one case an athlete thought he had ordered growth hormones, but received insulin instead. In the worst-case scenario this could even be life-threatening.
Since Operation Viribus it must have occurred to a lot of amateur athletes that the risk that they go could get caught using banned substances. Do you think that this could lead to attitudes changing, or do you think most will just carry on as before?
I think that it will have hit home with some that what they have been doing is actually illegal and that particularly grave health risks are associated with using these products and substances. We expect the supply of these substances to collapse, at least in the short term. However, we must also be particularly vigilant in the long term. And the import and trade in these substances must continue to be actively combatted.
Professor Mario Thevis heads the Centre for Preventive Doping Research at the German Sport University Cologne. The 46-year-old chemist and sports scientist is a member of the expert group that is further developing the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) banned list of performance-enhancing substances. His research focuses on the development of new detection methods for use in doping analysis.
The interview was conducted by Andreas Sten-Ziemons