Opinion: The doping scandal that wasn’t

Two doping scandals hit the headlines last week. One was very serious, apparently very long-running, and seemingly ignored by the sport’s governing bodies for a great many years. The other culminated in Lance Armstrong finally being stripped of his 7 Tour de France titles.

In case you’re puzzled, I should inform you of the apparently entrenched practice of dosing up on an addictive stimulant drug before top level football matches. Glen Johnson, Rio Ferdinand and Phil Neville have all admitted recently that they take this drug before matches and have been doing so for some time. They don’t seem to think it’s a problem, probably because the drug is caffeine. It isn’t a restricted drug, but they do take it in order to enhance their performance, so it’s certainly a moral grey area.

What is far more concerning than the morality however is whether any benefits to focus and alertness outweigh the very real risks. And now that people know about this practice, will we see many more sportsmen and women at amateur and youth level embracing the idea of popping ‘performance-enhancing’ pills before games?

The risks to health stem from the fact that caffeine is a vasoconstrictor. It narrows blood vessels thus restricting blood flow to the tissues during exercise, particularly concerning for blood flow to the heart in extended periods of exercise like football matches. It is also a diuretic, so likely to contribute to dehydration if athletes are not careful to consume enough fluid. These are risks that can be diminished by the sensible supervision of team doctors at the top level of the game, but have these professionals unwittingly encouraged medically unsupervised risk-taking at the grass roots? If caffeine is going to be embraced by children and amateurs all around the country following this week’s revelations, I fear we will see young athletes suffering cardiac trauma in parks and small grounds around the country.

We should already have been concerned about the levels of caffeinated energy drink consumption among children and young people. Despite the continued aggressive marketing of energy drinks at children, paediatric nutrition and sport science experts have concluded:

 Caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents.

And there are policy options that can reduce risk and remove hypocrisy from the doping system. If caffeine is a drug with dangers that footballers are deliberately using to enhance performance, then it should be reinstated onto the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list (with a reasonable threshold of course). We also have to consider scientific opinion and move towards restricting sale of heavily caffeinated beverages to over 16s (or over 18s depending on where the evidence points us).

In writing this article it’s interesting that many of my Google searches around caffeine, exercise and heart risk took me to advice pages at Livestrong.com, the website of Lance Armstrong’s charity venture. I have no sympathy for Armstrong and his fate, but to be fair to him, at least his doping activities produced results, and their hidden nature meant that those who idolised him didn’t think they needed to cheat in order to reach the top.

* Ewan Hoyle is a West Scotland list candidate for the Scottish Parliament election next May

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3 Comments

  • Richard Laming 31st Oct '12 - 10:17am

    To complete and correct this post, the manufacturers of energy drinks are clear that such drinks are not suitable for children, and their code of practice forbids them from marketing them to under 16s. Read more here http://www.britishsoftdrinks.com/Default.aspx?page=712

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