by: Andrew MacDonald
New research published in the Journal of Physiology, suggests athletes using steroids for only a short period could gain an unfair advantage over ‘clean’ competitors for up to 10 years.
This brings sharply into focus the issue of doping in sport and the sanctions to be applied in circumstances where sports-people cheat the system.
It also demonstrates the difficulty in truly understanding the long term physiological benefits that doping athletes gain when compared with their clean counterparts.
The research explored the impact of a brief exposure to testosterone on mice. Testing revealed that three months after the drug was withdrawn, muscle grew by 30% after six days of exercise. That contrasted greatly with a control group of mice, whose muscle growth was only 6% over the same period.
The drugs boosted the number of cell nuclei in the muscle fibres – which are key to building strength in muscles when exercising. The additional cell nuclei gained through using the banned substance remain in the long term. Put simply, this demonstrates that a brief exposure to steroids can have a long-lasting effect.
‘Muscle memory’ has previously been attributed to motor learning but the data of the team behind this research suggests the existence of a cellular memory residing in the muscle fibres themselves.
These findings might also have consequences for the exclusion time of doping offenders. The revised World Anti-Doping Code, which will come into effect on 1 January 2015, will increase bans for drugs cheats from two years to four years.
Arguably, on the basis of this latest research, such a period is still not long enough to protect other clean athletes, ensure everyone is on a level playing field and that the spirit of fair competition is maintained.
Whilst it might appeal to many, however, a policy of lifetime bans would likely result in legal challenges.
This has already been seen with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) success before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in challenging a British Olympic Association bye-law. That bye-law provided for lifetime bans from Olympic competition for British athletes, even after they had served their periods of suspension.
The moral and legal debate about drugs in sport and what should be done looks likely to rumble on. There is an ever-changing landscape of drugs in sport and the anti-doping authorities will need to continue to advance and evolve to protect the clean competitors and the integrity of sport. Scientific developments are likely to play a crucial role in this process.