The Real Dopes?

In their quest for success, many athletes are abusing science by taking banned drugs.

During the 1997 Tour de France bike race, officials tapped French cyclist Erwan Mentheour (at right) for a random drug test. Just before the race, Mentheour had taken erythropoietin (EPO), a performance-enhancing drug banned in the 2,400-mile race.

One side effect of EPO is that it thickens the blood. So Mentheour’s trainer and doctor tried thinning his blood before the test. They injected him with sugar. Then they bled him. Mentheour still tested positive and was thrown off the racing circuit.

Within two weeks, Mentheour was allowed back on his bike. He claimed his blood had been out of whack because he had had diarrhea and had lost a lot of water. The truth, he later confessed, was that he’d been taking EPO and other banned performance-enhancing drugs. “That was part of the job,” he said.

Mentheour is far from alone. Many other athletes have confessed to, or been caught, taking forbidden drugs. All of them had put science to dark purposes: winning at all costs.


Probably the most popular performance-enhancing drug at the moment is human growth hormone (hGH), which is also banned in most sports. The drug hGH is a synthetic form of a hormone made naturally by the pituitary, a pea-sized gland attached to the base of the brain. Natural human growth hormone has a profound effect on every cell in the body. It helps young people grow tall and strong. It slows down the aging process in older people. Some doctors call it the “fountain of youth.”

Scientists developed hGH in the 1980s to treat dwarfism, a form of stunted growth. In 1996, the U.S. government also approved hGH for use in adult patients suffering from human growth hormone deficiencies, usually caused by pituitary diseases or infections. To their surprise, the patients found themselves developing bigger, stronger muscles.

That news prompted many athletes to get hold of hGH on the black market and start taking it. Among Olympic athletes, hGH use became so widespread that Charles Yesalis, a professor at Penn State University, called the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta the “growth hormone Games.”


According to Yesalis, hGH helps athletes train harder and longer and recover faster after training. However, the side effects can range from severe bloating to excessive bone growth in the face, hands, and feet. “There are rumors about bodybuilders who have used hGH and grown one or two shoe sizes,” said Yesalis.

The long-term effects of hGH are still unknown. But Lyle Alzado, a former lineman for the Los Angeles Raiders football team, believed that the brain cancer that eventually killed him was caused by his use of hGH and steroids, another banned drug.

Although hGH is banned in most sports, no approved test for it exists. Testing for hGH is difficult because it so closely resembles natural human growth hormone. Strenuous exercise also increases natural human growth hormone production, and people vary widely in their natural hormone levels.

Scientists are working on a blood test that identifies the presence of hGH in the body. However, until that test proves reliable enough to stand up in court, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will not begin testing at the Olympics.


Another popular performance enhancing drug is synthetic EPO, the drug cyclist Erwan Mentheour was caught taking. Natural EPO is a hormone produced by the kidneys when oxygen levels in the body’s tissues drop. EPO commands the body to make more red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the body’s cells.

Synthetic EPO was developed in the late 1980s to fight anemia, a condition marked by extreme paleness and fatigue and caused by a low red blood cell count. Shortly after, endurance athletes discovered that synthetic EPO could help them turn in superhuman performances. The extra red blood cells carry extra oxygen, boosting athletes’ endurance.

The side effects of EPO include muscle tremors, oily skin, acne, and skin flushed by the heart’s effort to pump blood made thick from too many red cells. Extreme side effects include high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. Since 1987, EPO abuse has reportedly killed about 20 cyclists.

One test for EPO, called a hematocrit test, already exists–the same test that busted Mentheour in 1997. The IOC won’t use the hematocrit test because it doesn’t actually detect EPO. It only reveals how many red cells are in the blood.

Last month, however, the IOC announced that it would administer two new tests that detect synthetic EPO in urine and blood samples. Many applauded the decision. Yesalis and other critics said, however, that the use of other banned substances has grown worse since the Atlanta Games. The new EPO tests won’t stop this month’s competition from being the “most-doped Games,” said Yesalis.

At least, the Sydney Games won’t be known as the “hGH-EPO Games.”

Master Gland

The pituitary gland, pictured at right, is the most important gland in the body. It releases at least nine hormones. Some of those hormones have direct effects on the human body. Others prompt different glands to release hormones of their own.

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