I sometimes wonder about the implications faced by professional athletes who unwittingly use medication for purposes of health and wellbeing, yet come under fire by authorities because these same drugs are deemed to be illegal in their sport of choice. After years of closely following sports with a keen eye on reports of substance abuse, it is clear that there is a huge discrepancy between substances classified as performance enhancing, and those used to keep someone alive – particularly because it is the same drug that may fit into both camps, depending on who’s making the call. Self-admittedly, I am not a professional athlete, but I am (and always have been) an amateur athlete in a variety of sports. I often think about the consequences I would face if I had a medical condition requiring the use of meds, and have come to the conclusion that, like it or not, pro athletes are really walking on very thin ice.
If you sit down and take time to think about the evolution of sport, it is truly remarkable to see the advancements in athletic performance, so much so, that it becomes almost impossible to compare athletes of the past with those of the present. While it is recognized that athletes of any era strive to be the best they can be by reaching their full potential, it is undeniable that much of the progress and development of sport and athletes is due in large part to the rapid growth of technology and advancements in science. Modern day athletes are able to reach their maximum potential in all area of sport including speed, strength and even size. Sports physicians play a key role as well. It is the athlete’s doctor who is ultimately responsible to ensure that the athlete is well cared for and can reach his/her true potential by addressing any underlying health issues. This, however, is where things can go awry because drugs prescribed for medicinal purposes, and to assist an athlete in enhancing their ‘natural abilities’ are sometimes considered “illegal” in the world of sports.
Consider an individual who has Asthma. The disease causes inflammation of the airways, making it very difficult to breathe. There are proven ways for individuals to cope with the symptoms of asthma, however the most common method is the use of a puffer, which acts as a mechanism to dispense medication (steroids) into the airways and lungs. Now, consider this: An athlete, who developed asthma in his younger years, has been using a medicated puffer to control the symptoms of asthma and prevent respiratory failure in the extreme case. Clearly, his life is dependent on it, but so too, is his athletic performance. Without the use of a puffer, this athlete would have reduced lung capacity resulting in difficulty breathing and reduced stamina. Using a puffer should be viewed as a necessary medical intervention to keep an athlete alive and allow him to compete on a level playing field. It should not, any way, be seen as giving him a competitive advantage, because let’s face it, breathing is necessary to live. It boggles my mind to understand why an asthma patient using a puffer, is subject to the ramifications of illegal substance use in sport under the heading of “performance enhancement” – ridiculous! The athlete is clearly using the prescribed medication to stay alive and be able to compete on a level playing field – he, in no way, is using a puffer to enhance his abilities. If the goal were the latter, wouldn’t the athlete opt for a proven PED rather than puffer meds?! (Learn more about asthma here)
Case in point: A well-publicized incident concerning the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club and player, Carter Ashton made headline news across the country. Ashton was recently suspended for 20 games and fined $169,185 for using a so-called illegal substance under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Ashton, who suffers from Asthma, stated that he had an asthmatic spasm while training for the upcoming 2014-15 NHL season. He borrowed a friend’s inhaler during the attack to help open his restricted airway, without even considering the possibility that the inhaler was not permitted for use. Why Ashton received such a suspension is completely absurd. Ashton stated, “At no time was I seeking to gain athletic advantage.” Clearly! Ashton was simply trying to put himself back in a healthy position to continue to play hockey.
Athletic Associations around the world need to do a better job of drawing a more distinct (and sensible) line between what drugs can and cannot be used in sports. I’m not suggesting that there should be a free-for-all in terms of substance use; I’m just an advocate for a system that takes into account the health requirements of the participants, first and foremost.
Nick Backstrom is known as one of the most dominant players in the NHL, and recently participated in the 2014 Sochi Olympic games. As an athlete, there is no greater pride then having the opportunity to represent your country, however Backstrom was stripped of this privilege because of his inadvertent use of a drug deemed to be illegal in the face of the committee. Backstrom was not permitted to participate in the gold medal game for team Sweden, as he tested positive for a banned substance. The unbelievable part about this is that the so-called ‘banned substance’ was an over the counter allergy medication (Claritin) administered with the intention to help Backstrom deal with his migraines and allergies. Backstrom was forced to miss out on arguably one of the biggest hockey games of his life, with a gold medal on the line, because he was accused of using an illegal substance. Prior to Sweden’s loss to team Canada, Backstrom’s name was cleared for using the banned substance and was subsequently awarded the silver medal that the team earned. (For more information the the full case of Backstrom click here)
As an athlete, it really bothers me to hear stories like this because they are unfair and unnecessary. There is a big difference between drugs to enhance an individual’s performance and drugs to keep a person alive. In my view, the two should never be confused.