Last updated on: 10/4/2023 | Author:

History of Performance-Enhancing Drugs and Technologies in Sports

Sports “ain’t never been clean,” says Charles Yesalis, former Pennsylvania State University professor and long-time performance-enhancing drug researcher. [1]

And by “never,” Yesalis means never. Research suggests that the first Olympians were openly doping. “The ancient Olympic champions were professionals who competed for huge cash prizes as well as olive wreaths, lived on the public dole and were sometimes recruited by competing cities seeking status. Most forms of what we would call cheating were perfectly acceptable to them, save for game-fixing. There is evidence that they gorged themselves on meat — not a normal dietary staple of the Greeks — and experimented with herbal medications in an effort to enhance their performances,” explains sports journalist Sally Jenkins. [2]

While ancient Greeks used wine concoctions and the hearts and testicles of animals to enhance performance, athletes in the mid-19th century started experimenting with chemical potions including “sugar cubes dipped in ether, brandy laced with cocaine, nitroglycerine and amphetamines.” Thus, as Jenkins notes, “the current scourges of steroids and blood boosters are merely a sequential progression…. The next step … is gene therapy — athletes will be able to inject genes that build muscle. At which point steroids will seem as crude as sugar cubes soaked in ether.” [2]

As Jenkins notes, gene editing is expected to be the “next big issue” in sports’ doping. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the international agency tasked with enforcing doping rules, anticipated this as far back as 2003, when it issued a preemptive ban on gene therapy. That ban was extended to all forms of gene editing in 2018. The United States government included a permanent gene-doping ban for athletes in the 2006 reauthorization of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Act. [3] [4] [5]

However, the bans face steep challenges because, as Sam Moxon of the University of Manchester explains, “current tests are designed to detect foreign substances and chemicals in an athlete’s bloodstream or urine. DNA is far from a foreign substance and is harder to probe for evidence of tampering. For example, unlike classic doping drugs such as steroids, bioengineered substances are chemically identical to the body’s natural hormones, making detection difficult at best. Gene editing adds additional layers of concerns. Doping using something like CRISPR guarantees that tests will be unable to detect when an athlete has attempted to give themselves a genetic advantage.” [3] [4]

Another question is whether “techno-doping” should be allowed. Techno-doping is any specialized equipment or technological augmentation that confers an advantage to the athlete, like a specially designed shoe, bike motor, or limb prostheses that specifically offers an advantage over other athletes in the same competition. Techno-doping can be seen in a positive or negative light: as either balancing the playing field for a disabled athlete or giving an unfair advantage to an athlete. Most famously, when South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius adopted J-shaped “cheetah blades” (both of his feet had been amputated due to a congenital defect), the augmentation ignited fierce debate because using the blades “allowed him to use 25 percent less energy than non-disabled athletes use when running at the same speed” but also conferred disadvantages because of his increased potential for slipping on slick surfaces. 

And in the age of artificial intelligence, with new human-machine interfaces such as “smart glasses” (glasses that provide specialized data and abilities to the wearer), the possibilities for boosting competitive advantages through technology are seemingly endless. In football and golf, for example, digital scanners in a player’s helmet or sunglasses, or even embedded in the player’s brain, could render the need “to read” defenses and greens all but obsolete because technology will perform such tasks. True, the athlete would still need to execute the play or shot, but the mental aspect of the sport, so fundamental to the competition, would be dramatically changed by such technological enhancements. [6]

The debates about PEDs also seep into other aspects of fairness in sport and the very question of what counts as “performance-enhancing.” Do transgender women athletes, for example, have an unfair advantage over cisgender women athletes? And if transgender women are banned from cisgender women sports, should any of the latter whose bodies naturally make an above-average amount of testosterone also be banned?

As medicine and technology advance, so too will the complexities of these debates over fairness and athletic competition. But the specific question remains: should performance-enhancing drugs and technologies be allowed in sports?

For more on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, see ProCon’s Historical Timeline: History of Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sports.