What would you do to get the edge?

Another athlete protests his innocence of using a banned performance enhancer. But the pressure to win is enormous
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The Independent Online

Nandrolone is a synthetic form of the male sex hormone, testosterone, and it helps build muscles. It is also a banned substance that is threatening to rip apart the already fragile fabric of athletics, and bring some of Britain's most respected sportsmen and women into disrepute.

Nandrolone is a synthetic form of the male sex hormone, testosterone, and it helps build muscles. It is also a banned substance that is threatening to rip apart the already fragile fabric of athletics, and bring some of Britain's most respected sportsmen and women into disrepute.

Last week Mark Richardson, the 4 x 400 metre Olympic silver and European bronze medallist, admitted that he had tested positive for the anabolic steroid.

The runner, who was ranked seventh in the world last year, and is one of Britain's medal hopes for the forthcoming Olympic games in Sydney later this year, joins a number of star athletes such as Linford Christie, Doug Walker and the former world 200m champion Merlene Ottey who have found themselves in the centre of a huge doping scandal. What gives this affair a dose of mystery is that all insistnandrolone must have got into their system through using dietary supplements that they thought safe to use.

Both the world athletics body, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have clamped down on the use of drugs in sport and have a long list of prohibited substances and techniques. Doping control measures include random spot checks where urine samples are taken by drug-testing officers from UK Sport, the umbrella organisation for British sport. According to the IAAF, an athlete is guilty if a banned substance shows up in a test, regardless of how it got there. Last year nandrolone was responsible for 343 positive tests across all sports worldwide.

UK Athletics, the governing body for athletics in this country, has been criticised by the IAAF for failing to uphold the rules: it has rescinded bans on the 400m hurdler Gary Cadogan, Doug Walker and Linford Christie, because of the possibility that nandrolone entered their bodies innocently through the use of dietary supplements. UK Sport has made it the subject of a special review.

David Moorcroft, UK Athletics' chief executive, says: "I don't believe these athletes have been deliberately cheating. What I am concerned about is whether hundreds of athletes who take dietary supplements may inadvertently be producing adverse findings. It is about time we found a better way to get to the bottom of what's happening."

Something which is undoubtedly happening is that athletes are under ever-increasing pressure to perform. And that has created a culture in which athletes are expected to supplement their diet with a range of pills, vitamins and protein drinks in order to boost the body's fitness and level of performance.

As Jon Ridgeon, Britain's former world 110m hurdles silver medallist, puts it: "The body is not designed to be punished in the way top athletes have to train to get to the top. Cyclists, athletes, swimmers across the board have to train really hard.

"You do what your peers do. You would struggle to find an élite athlete who didn't take powders. It would take a huge cultural leap of faith for athletes to stop taking them. I used to take protein drinks and isotonic drinks to recover from training better and to get through hard periods. I bought into the culture that says it helps you train better, harder, and keeps you healthy. As a runner, you want the best back-up."

Donna Fraser, the 400m Olympic hopeful and former European 400m junior champion, is a contemporary of Mark Richardson. She will be heading to Sydney this summer. She knows only too well that the life of an élite athlete is often a punishing grind. The scarcity of lottery money and sponsorship means amateur athletes have to work as well as train.

"When I was a student back in 1991 and training for the European junior championships, I was eating all the wrong things - crisps, loads of cheese, fast food. I didn't have time to eat properly and I wasn't drinking enough fluids. I was pushing myself so hard I would throw up after every training session.

"At the top level you're pushing your body to its limit, training three times a day. It's the will to win that drives us all. The standard of training is so high, the body can't cope with just water and a banana to give you energy. My coach sent me to a nutritionist and now I use the proteins creatine and glutamine, which is much better."

The growing supplements industry has saturated the culture of sport and fiercely competitive athletes don't need much encouragement to include supplements in their diets. Mike Yates, fitness coach with Saracens rugby club, says: "There is too much at stake for people to return to the idea of sport without supplements. Virtually every week we have manufacturers ringing us about new products. They do point out what contains banned substances and what does not, and whatever we decide to use is checked by a biochemist because we can't afford to make any mistakes."

Malcolm Brown, chief medical officer for the Great Britain Olympic team, has called for a radical rethink about the way the supplement industry is regulated. At the moment anyone can order supplements advertised as performance enhancing, whether they are banned or not, from the internet.

"We encourage all athletes to tell us about any drugs they're prescribed by their doctor or any supplements they're taking," says Dr Brown. "The difficulty is that you're constrained by two things: one is scientific knowledge, the other is whether the list of ingredients is a true reflection of what's in the container."

Banned drugs such as ephedrine, caffeine and steroids are very effective. They help athletes recover quicker and train harder, which does tempt them to risk using the drugs. "Unless you spell it out to people clearly that they must not take these things," says Mike Yates, "they will continue to take the risk. Everyone's trying to get an edge. It takes about two years to increase body mass the natural way and around three months with the aid of certain supplements. We use amino acids, vitamins, minerals and glutamine, together with power training, to increase or maintain body mass, but the most important thing is eating the right balance of food. If there's not enough food in your system, it doesn't matter how many supplements you take, you're not going to get far."

Judy Oakes, 41, a former Commonwealth shot put champion and the first Briton this year to qualify for the Olympic Games, agrees.

"When you're training very hard it is difficult to fit in meals but, to get a balanced diet, you must. I have competed for 25 years on the international scene, and protein drinks are not the cure. In the Seventies and Eighties people were taking amino acids. Now there are so many companies providing supplements. The lifestyle of people is so rushed these days: training twice a day, seven days a week, fitting in work - there is a temptation to pick up a quick fix. Weight training can leave you feeling really achy and the aerobic work can leave you feeling very sick, which would make you less likely to want to eat. If you're over-fatigued to the point where you need a big energy boost, you're training too much. You've got to listen to your body. If I need an energy top-up, I have a drink like Nutrament. If something new comes along, I won't touch it with a barge pole."

Matthew Yates, a 1500m Olympic hopeful, is equally sceptical about supplements. He says: "I don't buy without checking a label. I don't want a three-month ban for taking cough medicine. Until I have seen conclusive evidence that supplements work, I will stay away."

JUST SAY NO TO THESE...

STIMULANTS

Reduce tiredness, increase alertness, competitiveness and aggression. Banned because they give unfair advantage and they make it difficult for the body to cool down which can be fatal.

NARCOTIC ANALGESICS

Painkillers. Banned because they are very addictive and make original injury worse.

ANDROGENIC ANABOLIC STEROIDS

Type of hormone known as testosterone. Used to make a competitor larger and stronger. May increase aggression and help people to train harder, increasing competitiveness. Banned because in large quantities and over long periods they could interfere with the normal hormone balance of the body and increase the risk of liver and premature heart disease.

BETA BLOCKERS

Steady nerves and stop trembling. Banned because they slow the heart to the point at which it could stop.

DIURETICS

Used to lose weight quickly in sports with weight categories, such as boxing, and to increase the rate at which competitors can pass urine, making it harder for a laboratory to detect a banned substance. Misuse could be considered a doping offence.

PEPTIDE HORMONES AND ANALOGUES

Used to stimulate production of naturally occurring steroids, to build up muscles, to mend body tissue and to improve ability to carry oxygen. Misuse can lead to a variety of complications including blood clots, strokes and enlarged organs.

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