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Ready, set...dope?

Mere milliseconds in sport can mean the difference between victory or defeat. But while new records are unlikely, the desire to win burns strong. You will have to push your physical boundaries - but with drugs? Really?

Sprint Laufsport

Records in marathon running are increasingly hard to break.

The moment you place your foot on the starting block, the noise of the crowd starts to melt away. Barely conscious of your surroundings, you become intensely aware of your own body: your heartbeat resonating in your throat, the adrenalin coursing through your veins, your muscles electrified and ready to explode into action with the starting pistol.

It doesn’t matter if you then dive into the pool, launch into a sprint, or push the pedals of your racing bike. Because the motivation in every competitive sport is the same: not only to take part, but also to win, if not to break records.

But after more than 300 years of modern sport it’s becoming more difficult, and while athletes undercut each other by minutes in the first half of the 20th century, that margin has narrowed to seconds over recent decades.

Deutschland Schwimm-EM 2014 in Berlin 24.08.2014

The desire to win is what fuels many athletes to new personal bests. But what happens when they reach the limit of what their bodies are naturally capable of achieving?

We’re reaching the limit of what our bodies are naturally capable of achieving. But the desire to go further is just as intense – perhaps even more so, due to public interest fed by media coverage.

Only doping makes record-breaking possible

The audience is demanding broken records, but naturally - something experts argue is becoming more and more unlikely.

“Today, existing borders in every top-class sports are only crossed with help of doping,” says Ingo Froböse, professor at Europe’s largest research institution for sports, the German Sports University Cologne.

And athletes are increasingly feeling this pressure to take drugs to enhance their performance.

“People want it both ways. People are happy to see world records broken all the time but they will neglect the fact that without performance enhancing drugs this would not happen,” one sportsperson told Australian scientist Terry Engelberg, who conducted a study on doping.

Talking drugs in sports

With the practice of doping a taboo across the world, it has made it increasingly difficult to study with those taking such substances less willing to speak out about the problem. But Engelberg was able to speak to 18 young athletes, all who had doped. They estimated that on average 57 percent of all elite athletes had used performance enhancing drugs.

Symbolbild Doping

Doping is defined as the intake of “illegal” performance enhancing substances. What is considered “illegal” is defined by the sports organization in charge and also partly defined by each country’s law.

“The desire to be the best in their chosen sport or to win prevailed over all other factors. Athletes appeared very aware of their capabilities and limitations and it was this awareness that led athletes to a carefully calculated decision to dope,” writes the scientist, a research fellow at Griffiths University working in the area of sport corruption particularly in the field of drug use in sport.

Still, there was one particular sport that stood out from the rest: bodybuilding. The eight bodybuilders, who took part in the study, not only gave higher estimates than their colleagues, they also gave the highest estimates for their own sport at 81 percent.

Bodybuilders felt that they needed to dope to “‘have a chance at all in their sport’,” writes Engelberg and to create what one competitor called an “equal footing”.

“I started when I was 20 years old. I had just competed in a natural bodybuilding competition. I was natural at that time. ” one bodybuilder told Engelberg. “After being outclassed in every way I made some enquiries and discovered my competition was by no means natural. I started taking steroids shortly after that competition.”

Whether the figures the athletes had estimated were accurate or whether their perceptions were actually correct was irrelevant. What the study showed was how this perceived culture was pushing the bodybuilders into a vicious cycle, maintaining a drug-dependent norm in the sport.

Making it big in bodybuilding

It’s a problem that starts early on, says Eric Helms, a natural bodybuilder and doctoral candidate at the Auckland University of Technology where he studies strength and conditioning particularly with regard to bodybuilding.

“Most people who get involved with bodybuilding want to get bigger, and they look up to whomever is on the cover of magazines,” he says, adding that it is these athletes who are in untested federations and have been taking drugs for years. “Also, the supplement industry promotes the idea of getting as big as possible in as little time as possible, rather than committing to the lifestyle of bodybuilding and seeing where the journey takes you.”

Wettbewerb der Muskelmänner in Mashhad

There are different types of bodybuilding associations: Untested ones, where drug use is tolerated, and natural bodybuilding leagues that commit themselves to compete drug-free. Steroids are common drugs used in bodybuilding - they increase the protein metabolism increasing muscle mass. Besides these desired effects, steroids also cause side effects, like altering sexual characteristics: Face hair growth increases in women, whereas steroid use among men may cause breasts to grow.

Having the wrong ideals and difficulties in determining what is possible to accomplish without drugs increases the negative outcome: “[Beginners] can be confused at best and disillusioned at worst,” Helms wrote in an earlier opinion piece.

Still, even for those who want to remain natural, the appeal of a quick result is tempting, he admits, adding that he had tried over-the-counter prohormones. He was not competing at the time and did not know whether they were allowed or not within the sport.

“I bought into the ‘get big now’ mentality that is common among novices getting into lifting weights. I was uninformed, young, and hadn't yet realized that this was a long term commitment rather than a short term fling,” he says.

Lack of effective punishment for doping

Even where drugs are considered “illegal”, banning or financial punishments for being found to use them is not enough to deter most users, Engelberg found. Of the 18 of the Australian athletes in the study - all who had used drugs - only two had ever tested positive.

Doping Urinproben

Usually, two types of doping tests are performed: for competitions, blood samples are taken. Outside of competition, urine tests are performed.

Additionally, figures from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) show that only 33 athletes of 7,196 tested in the season of 2011/12 were found to have doped, despite anecdotal evidence indicating otherwise.“Testing is more of a front for the media, we all know each other is doping. It is not a secret. The mandatory tests are just there to satisfy the legal requirements I guess,” one bodybuilder, who was part of the study, said.

Public pressure, perception and the lack of more effective tests has combined to make bodybuilders think there is no other option - but there is another way: natural bodybuilding.

“It was a natural competition that I attended that inspired me to compete,” he remembers. “I got familiar with the community, the champions and I found out what was banned, and what wasn't. I gained new physiques to look up to and perspective on what an achievable drug free physique looks like.”

Alternatives, needing more than just muscle strength

A breakaway community from traditional bodybuilding it is considered to be a young sport, but it is gaining more members, like Thomas from Life Links episode #dropdeadgorgeous, who says he shuns drugs such as steroids.

“I want to do this sports my whole life and not die at the age of 40 just because I was taking stuff to make my muscles grow. There’s no point,” says the 24-year-old.

Watch video 12:33

Watch Thomas' story here

Thomas was 16 when he received a book by one of the natural bodybuilding pioneers in Germany, Berend Breitenstein, and began digging further into the topic, he recalls. His parents’ full support of his sports career - but only if it is doping free - was also a push for him, especially as he has since lost them both to cancer.

Thomas is well aware that people taking drugs do set the standards, but he wants to compete on a level playing field and in a natural bodybuilding league, that not only tests at competitions, but also off-season. “This way, it is a fair sport,” he adds.

Even if he was to reach his natural limits, Thomas says he would not start using drugs: “I’d probably then switch to a suitable alternative sport.”

Like Thomas, you still and always have the choice – though of course it takes more strength than it ever could to lift weights and build up muscle.

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