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27th September 2019

The ingenuity and productivity of the pharmaceutical industry can be put to dubious uses by athletes seeking a short cut to glory

As the World Athletics Championships get underway in Qatar today, all eyes will be on two very different types of contest.

The first is one we’ve seen many times before, as almost 2,000 women and men from 209 nations test their speed and strength in 49 different events.

The second is one that’s sadly becoming more and more familiar with each passing year, as anti-doping organisations attempt to thwart the athletes who’ve taken a short cut to glory with performance-enhancing drugs. Thirty one years ago Ben Johnson set a world record in the men’s Olympic 100 metre final, only to have it wiped away within 48 hours when his steroid abuse was discovered. Since then, we’ve seen over 1,100 doping violations punished with no end in sight.

Part of the problem is the ingenuity and productivity of the pharmaceutical industry. Drugs that are developed to treat illness and enhance quality of life can often be used for more sinister ends.

Darbepoetin alfa (Aranesp) was developed 20 years ago to treat anaemia in people with chronic renal failure. In a nutshell, it sends a message from the kidneys to the bone marrow to increase production of red blood cells. For anaemic patients, this can be the difference between life and death. For elite athletes it can boost the amount of oxygen the blood carries to the muscles and be the difference between gold and dust. Almost from the moment the drug was granted FDA approval, it was in widespread use among athletes. When anti-doping regulators found effective tests to identify cheating, they kept quiet about it for as long as possible. Once a test becomes public knowledge, athletes and their coaches start looking for ways to circumvent it.

Not all athletes, of course. For every Ben Johnson, there’s a Usain Bolt who ran and won clean. For every Justin Gatlin, who runs this weekend despite two drug bans, there’s a Michael Johnson who dominated his events for a decade on nothing but talent and hard work. Over the next ten days we’ll see plenty of women and men who’ve earned their places on the podium and nothing should detract from their moment of glory. And just because life-saving drugs can be misused, that mustn’t detract from the work that goes into their development and the invaluable results they achieve. Today we salute everyone who plays by the rules and makes a positive difference.

 

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