Contaminated supplements put athletes at risk
BYÂ BRAD STENGER
Athletes who take legal supplements instead of banned performance-enhancing drugs may be getting exactly what they seek to avoid. Nearly a quarter of supplements actually are tainted with steroids, according to sports medicine physician Jeff Anderson.
Frank Shorter is an Olympic gold medal marathoner and founder of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, an Indianapolis independent testing center for illegal performance-enhancing substances. Having regularly sampled products from nutrition store shelves, Shorter told a Chicago audience last week, "Sixty percent of the creatine we test is laced with the steroid neandrolone.”
In theÂ trendy world of supplements, creatine, a compound that makes energy available to muscles but which doesn’t actually increase their size, is not being used as much anymore, according to Anderson, a professor at the University of Connecticut. "It’s not young. It’s not new. It’s not hot."
Anderson says about 25 percent of sports-focused dietary supplements in the U.S. contains anabolic hormones, steroids like testosterone and its analogues. These are substances that are typically illegal and have been banned in sports competition. They are also proven to aid in post-workout recovery and in protein synthesis, the process the body uses to build muscle.
“If you’re looking at it from a business perspective yeah put a lot of (steroid) in, it’s going to work well and people are going to buy your product,” Anderson told a recent Boston sports medicine gathering saying that supplement manufacturers are operating dishonestly and putting customers, often young athletes, at real risk for a positive drug test.
Hans Geyer at the Center for Preventive Doping Research in Germany published a study in 2008 in the Journal of Mass Spectrometry that found sports nutritional supplements often were laced with steroids - in amounts that could not be considered accidental.
Geyer says the entrance of low-cost Chinese manufacturers to the supplement market has made it highly competitive. By adding steroids companies are seeking to make their products as effective for customers as possible.
Supplement manufacturers succeed because they have minimal government oversight, a result of a 1995 Congressional act that considered nutritional supplements to be food products rather than medical products, subject to Food and Drug Administration regulation.Â
"Who is testing creatine to see if it’s pure? The creatine manufacturers themselves are testing their opposition to see if it’s pure. And those are the only people testing it," says Shorter. "You can’t promote and police."
A contaminated supplement can force a young athlete into a no-win situation, something Anderson witnesses in his role on the NCAA Competitive Safeguards Committee, a group that handles college athlete drug violation appeals.
"One of the reasons you never let somebody off saying ‘I purchased a contaminated supplement’ is because it’s very easy to lie about," says Anderson. "You don’t know if the individual made an honest mistake," or whetherÂ athletes ingested something that they’re choosing not to tell you about.
"In that situation it’s told to athletes at all levels that ‘you’ are responsible for what you put into your body. If it shows up in your urine and it was in you, you’re responsible."
NSF, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based testing laboratory, has partnered with the National Football League, Major League BaseballÂ and a handful of sports and national bodies to create approved supplements lists. ConsumerLab.com, USP, and Drug Free Sport are three other organizations making lists of safe supplements.
It’s not just getting harder for athletes who want to play fair, athletes who want to cheat with performance-enhancing drugs also face new hurdles.
Shorter says the recent case of cyclist Alberto Contador, the 2010 Tour de France winner who tested positive for the illegal substance Clenbuterol after the race, indicates his side has gotten the upper hand in the arms race with sports-doping innovators. Race officials used a new test to apparently catch Contador.
"It wasn’t announced that they had a new more sophisticated test for the steroid he was taking in tiny doses," Shorter said. "You have to do this testing on an unannounced basis, all year-round."
Shorter and Anderson give the same explanation as to why athletes take performance-enhancers. "These things really work. We shot ourselves in the foot as a profession early on when we tried to convince people that they didn’t work," says Anderson.
"The basic problem is they work too well. They’re too good. They give you too much of an advantage," says Shorter.
In 1997 Sports Illustrated and a steroids expert named Bob Goldman surveyed 198 current or aspiring Olympians. Of athletes asked, "Would you take a banned performance-enhancer if it guaranteed them to win and not get caught?" 98 percent said yes. When asked, "Would you take the same undetectable substance if it allowed you to win every competition for five years, then result in death?" More than half said yes.
Says Shorter, "It’s always fascinated me, the level of denial and rationalization that has gone into this in our society. How much we’ve been willing to overlook in this area of sports."