Athletics: The uses of abuse

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THE outlawed drugs which an athlete may use fall into a number of different categories, depending on their purpose.

Stimulants, like ephedrine and amphetamines, are designed to give a short-term performance boost; narcotic painkillers deaden the pain of injuries; anabolic agents such as steroids allow the athlete to increase power and strength by training beyond normal endurance; beta-blockers slow the heart rate to allow the athlete to keep calm under pressure; diuretics are used to flush out the kidneys and can be used to mask other drugs; and erythropoietin enhance red bloodcell production so allowing the body to convert more energy from oxygen.

Many stimulants are taken in the ordinary course of life, and the rules allow for a certain amount of normal use. Caffeine, for instance, is allowed up to the equivalent of three cups of coffee. Approved asthma and anti-allergy type drugs, which can also aid performance, can only be used by people with asthma, and if they are inhaled.

The problem still remains for athletes using medication or supplements: how to avoid a positive drug test. Dr Richard Budgett, director of medical services to the British Olympic Association, said: 'They know; they are being told all the time; they are actively discouraged from taking anything at all, even vitamins, food supplements, and ginseng. It's just not worth it. . . and there is no need to take cold remedies. GPs don't prescribe them. They are a waste of time. If you start allowing a little bit of one drug, then another, where do you draw the line?'

In competition the full range of drugs are tested for, but out of competition attention focuses on the anabolic drugs and peptide hormones.