The notion that athletes who serve bans for doping should be regarded as having paid their penance and allowed to return to their respective sport has taken a hit following the publication of new research that indicates the benefits of performance enhancing drugs can last years — or even a lifetime — after they were taken.
The study conducted in the fall of 2013 by scientists from the University of Oslo found that human muscles retain performance-enhancing benefits of steroids long after being administered.
“I think it is likely that effects could be lifelong or at least lasting decades in humans,” said physiology professor Kristian Gundersen in an interview with the BBC. “Our data indicates the exclusion time of two years is far too short. Even four years is too short.”
In the world of professional cycling the list of riders who’ve served such two-year bans, then been allowed to return to racing is too long too list. Just as troubling is the notion furthered by riders who never got busted, but later admitted to past transgressions, claiming that they’d subsequently given up taking drugs and therefore should be forgiven — or even commended. Instead, they may still be reaping the ill got rewards from needles stuck in arms years, or even decades before.
Much of the hubbub surrounding these recent findings has centered on the track and field world, where once-suspended sprinter Justin Gatlin has returned to racing and the top of the podium. According to the BBC, the 32-year-old Gatlin owns six of the top seven 100-meter dash times in 2014. This seemingly unlikely string of top performances has raised the ire of competitors, who point to Gatlin’s advanced age as proof that what’s he’s accomplished is built on a foundation of cheating.
“He’s over the hill as far as sprinting is concerned,” British sprinter Dai Greene told the BBC. “He should never be running these times… But he’s still doing it, and you have to look at his past, and ask how it is still affecting him now, because the average person wouldn’t be able to do that.”
And then of course there is the perhaps comical domain of major professional team sports in North America, where first time anti-doping bans often last less than a full season, and even just a handful of games.
The Oslo researchers examined the effect of steroids on female mice, but are convinced that the same outcome occurs in human muscles — and that other drugs could have similar long-term benefits.
“I would be very surprised if there were any major differences between humans and mice in this context,” Gundersen told the BBC. “The fundamental biology of muscle growth is similar in humans and in mice, and in principle any drug that builds muscle mass could trigger this mechanism.”
Gundersen added that he was confident in the findings because of what he characterized as “clear cut” data.
“If you exercise, or take anabolic steroids, you get more nuclei and you get bigger muscles,” he added. “If you take away the steroids, you lose the muscle mass, but the nuclei remain inside the muscle fibers. They are like temporarily closed factories, ready to start producing protein again when you start exercising again.”
Yet another study at the University of Oslo revealed that mice given a two week course of testosterone exhibited accelerated muscle growth at a cellular level, allowing them to grow bigger and stronger when trained. More importantly, even after drug administration ended, the number of growth-enhancing nuclei remained for 90 days.
Currently first time drug cheat offenders in cycling receive a two-year ban, while a second offense carries a lifetime disqualification. However, starting in 2015 the Word Anti-Doping Agency has mandated that the first-time offense penalty be bumped to four years, assuring that athletes miss at least one Olympic cycle.
But with the results of these new studies coming to light, debate on whether that’s a significant enough penalty will remain.