Tuesday 17 April 2012

Drugs on the Today program

A good chat with Justin Webb on the radio 4 Today program last Saturday.  I was slightly surprised by his first question which seemed to imply that winning was not the only reason elite athletes took performance enhancing drugs. Perhaps it was just a function of their obsessive personality?  I am not quite sure I got the answer (or the question) entirely right. But it got me thinking. Elite athletes don't just compete in competitions where winning is important. Some equally obsessive personalities who are just as fit compete in ultra endurance events* e.g. multi-day continuous marathons or triathlons, often in extreme conditions. These events are as much a competition against yourself as against the other athletes. There are limited financial benefits and the fame of winning is restricted to a small community. In this case taking drugs might seem to be cheating on yourself. Yet on the other hand there are limited drug tests to worry about. It might be interesting to know whether drug use is more or less prevalent in this community than in traditional Olympic sports.

* note that in my book I give reasons, based on evolutionary biology, why drug use may anyway be less effective in enhancing performance in these kind of events. 


  1. could it be psychological benefits of 'knowing advantage' in using a PED, regardless of whether or not the drug did enhance performance? Difficult to research!

    1. absolutely! My book gives a number of examples of such psychological "placebo" advantages (and also the opposite where people do worse as they think others are doping). There are clever tricks to get around this in controlled laboratory studies, for example by giving people drugs when they don't think are getting them and not giving them drugs and telling them they are getting them (if you see what I mean). This is called a "balanced placebo design". The ethics are tricky and these studies have mostly been done on generally safe compounds such as caffeine.