Performance enhancing drugs are substances that increase a person's physical abilities and stamina. These drugs are taken for a variety of reasons, including to build muscle mass, dull pain, lower stress, and reduce weight. Abusing them can cause severe side effects, however, so most drugs are available only by prescription if at all. A great deal of controversy surrounds these drugs, and their use is a major concern among professional sporting associations worldwide.
The use of enhancements dates as far back as ancient Greece, where writings refer to "performance potions" and "performance elixirs." These were given to athletes in preparation for major games. It was not until the latter part of the 20th century that technology advanced enough to screen athletes regularly and enforce bans on the unfair use of steroids and other substances.
Performance enhancing drugs have a variety of uses, each intended to improve a specific physical attribute, such as strength or endurance. Some can even cover the traces of other drugs that are in an athlete's system. It is not uncommon for a person using performance enhancements to take a daily "cocktail" of different drugs.
Most performance enhancing drugs are taken orally as pills. Others may be injected, applied as a cream, or taken in powder form mixed with health shakes. The use of many of these substances can be detected through blood or urine tests.
Anabolic steroids are a type of performance enhancing drug that builds muscle mass. They are a hormone that increases the appetite, bone growth, and protein synthesis needed for the rapid development of muscle tissue. Anabolic steroids have a number of serious side effects, including a lowering of the voice, increased hair growth, and a shrinking of the testicles in men.
Powerful diuretics — which increase the frequency of urination — are used to artificially speed weight loss to enhance performance. Users can suffer from troubling side effects, including light-headedness and even fainting spells. Particularly controversial is the fact that users are often young people in sports where weight can be a critical factor, such as gymnastics or wrestling.
Performance enhancing drugs are not limited to sports, however. Beta blockers, a drug primarily used to manage heart problems, but which also lowers the effects of stress hormones, has found relatively widespread use among musicians. These drugs lessen the body's "fight or flight" response, which can arise under the stress of a concert or audition. Taking the drug helps musicians manage their stress and approach their performances with confidence.
There are a number of significant questions that accompany the use of performance enhancing drugs. Many people feel that the drugs give an unfair advantage to their users. Others point to the potential side effects, and claim that overuse may cause significant health problems. In addition, some point out the role model factor: young people often look to professional athletes as role models, and, if an athlete uses enhancements, the young people may be more likely to follow.
On the other hand, many people are willing to risk the possible side effects in order to obtain peak performance. The use of performance enhancing drugs is so widespread, it has been argued, that it would be impossible to regulate them effectively. Still others raise the point that other forms of technology — the use of high-tech materials in shoes, for example — already give certain athletes an edge, so performance enhancing drugs should enjoy the same allowance.
Despite the arguments in favor of these drugs, the use of a wide variety of performance enhancements is banned in professional sports. The term "doping" is used to describe the use of such drugs or other banned enhancements, like blood doping. Most sports associations have doping agencies whose sole purpose is to test for performance enhancing drugs and ban substances thought to provide an unfair advantage.
As technologies continue to develop, however, the job of determining whether an athlete has taken performance enhancing drugs becomes more and more difficult. In 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was created to better coordinate drug testing and punishment. WADA is dedicated to tracking new drugs and developing tests to prevent them from reaching widespread use.