NBJ

The negatives of testing positive

Sports journalist and author Mark Johnson shares thoughts about doping in the Olympics and the role of supplements for elite athletes.

Sports journalist Mark Johnson has covered cycling since the 1980s, including a year traveling with Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin cycling team—a project determined to eliminate the doping that has plagued pro cycling since the 1800s. His latest book, Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports, exposes what he calls a societal double standard. “We’ve said publicly that performance enhancing drugs are fine, and we’re going to advertise them to you and your nine-year-old on television,” he told NBJ, referring to drugs like Viagra and Adderall. “Yet at the same time we hold athletes up to a set of completely different set of standards.”

NBJ talked to Johnson about doping in the Olympics, and the role of supplements for elite athletes.

Say more about that double standard.

Mark Johnson: Typically the media starts from the premise that drugs are inherently evil, and that sport is inherently virtuous and uncorrupted. That’s really a false premise because the nature of Mark Johnsonsport isn’t fair play. The nature of elite sport is to push the boundaries of human endurance, and the nature of professional sports is to entertain and sell products. Today anti-doping is really a modern manifestation of that effort to impose purity in a corrupted world. The problem is incredibly difficult, particularly in America, where we didn’t even have an anti-doping agency until 2000. France banned doping in sports and made it a federal offense in 1965. We didn’t care until the year 2000, and the only reason that we created the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is because the World Anti-Doping Agency was created in 1999 so we had to go through the motions.

What do you see as the ultimate resolution of that double standard?

MJ: I think for elite athletes, because they are pushing their bodies to the limits in terms of exercise, and their nutritional needs are pretty unique, yeah, certainly. There are cases where athletes are truly iron deficient because of what they’re putting themselves through. I think for those athletes there certainly are. But again, I don’t think the issue is so much in the role of supplements, it’s the ancillary damage that comes when they take an iron supplement that’s contaminated with something else. The risks aren’t in the supplement. The risks are in the lack of good policing in the face of the supplement industry. There’re a lot of supplement makers that are going to say, “How dare you paint us all with the same brush.” It’s unfair, but the fact is these elite Olympic athletes are responsible for what goes into their body, and if they can’t trust what’s on the label then they’re under a lot of risk by taking supplements.

Do you think there’s legitimate role for supplements in professional sports?

MJ: I think for elite athletes, because they are pushing their bodies to the limits in terms of exercise, and their nutritional needs are pretty unique, yeah, certainly. There are cases where athletes are truly iron deficient because of what they’re putting themselves through. I think for those athletes there certainly are. But again, I don’t think the issue is so much in the role of supplements, it’s the ancillary damage that comes when they take an iron supplement that’s contaminated with something else. The risks aren’t in the supplement. The risks are in the lack of good policing in the face of the supplement industry. There’re a lot of supplement makers that are going to say, “How dare you paint us all with the same brush.” It’s unfair, but the fact is these elite Olympic athletes are responsible for what goes into their body, and if they can’t trust what’s on the label then they’re under a lot of risk by taking supplements.

Do you think that’s especially true in performance categories like sports and weight loss?

MJ: What WADA told me they found in their research is that, for instance, for a bodybuilder who’s trying to see their muscle size increase, sometimes supplements aren’t doing anything. So, for a supplement maker to get their customers to come back they will lace their supplements with anabolic steroids or anabolic steroids precursors. That’s not on the label but it’s in the product, and so consumers are coming back for that. That’s what WADA’s testing of global supplement labeling accuracy indicates is happening. I think for the average consumer it’s not a big deal that you might take a supplement that’s contaminated or might harm you health-wise. Maybe, I don’t know. But for an athlete who’s going to be tested, there are real economic repercussions there.

For the general consumer taking a muscle gain supplement, maybe the desired results aren’t possible with legitimate and beneficial supplements. Is there a drive to just look the other way?

MJ: In bodybuilding yes, but also in society in general. We advertise on television treatments for low T. You can go to a lifestyle enhancement clinic and get testosterone treatments or human growth hormone to make you perform better in the dating game, the game of life. As Americans we don’t have a problem with that. I think it gets back to that double standard where we say these athletes shouldn’t be taking these performance enhancing drugs, but for someone to get ahead in life that’s fine. Look at the use of stimulants to treat attention deficit. In 1990 there were 10 million prescriptions written for ADHD drugs like Adderall, which is an amphetamine. In 2010 there were 46 million prescriptions written for stimulants for ADHD and in 2014 there were 58 million. Half of those went to children between the age of four and 17, so here we’ve got industrial-scale doping of American kids. There’s no outrage over that. We seem just fine with it. And of the adults, 64% don’t even have ADHD. Why are they taking them? Performance enhancement—so you can focus better in school, you can focus better on your job. When I was with the Garmin team they would use supplements for the same reason I talked about, that these guys are pushing their bodies to the limits of human endurance, and they simply struggled to get enough of the proper nutrients through diet. They would take supplements, but what the Garmin team would do is when they would get a batch of supplements they would have them tested to ensure that the supplements were actually pure.

How do athletes protect themselves from spiked supplements?

MJ: I think given the nutritional supplement industry’s track record, the only way for an athlete to protect themselves is not to take supplements. I know this interview is for the supplement industry and that’s when I go, “Come on guys. Clean up your act. It can’t be that hard.” But because it’s a completely unregulated industry anybody can hang out a shingle and say, “All right, I’m a supplement manufacturer.” That creates a lot of opportunity for fraud and bad actors to enter the industry.

Do you think supplements are ever used as a scapegoat for the doping?

MJ: Totally. That’s one of their first lines of defense is to say, “Oh, I took a bad supplement. It’s not my fault, the supplement industry is at fault,” even though they may well have been taking drugs. The supplement industry gets thrown under the bus.

What do you see cleaning up the situation?

MJ:I think it has to come from a cultural change in expectation, but I don’t see how that can happen, particularly in Olympic sports, because Olympic sports are really an extension of geopolitical battles for national status. You look at Russia today, they have a state-run doping program. Why? To assert the success of the Russian project. Just as in the past the United States, during the Cold War, overlooked doping. We were tired of being embarrassed on the Olympic playing field by the Soviets, and by the East Germans, so we overlooked it. You’re not going to change that. Countries are still going to fight for power and position, and the Olympics are an extension of that battle, and doping is part of that battle. That’s a very, very difficult force to stop, if not impossible. Then there are the athletes themselves. They don’t want to dope, but to succeed in certain sports the perception is that they have to.

What would you say to supplement makers?

MJ: I think, particularly for your publication, somebody might read my book and say, “Well this guy has a fundamental bias and he’s just out to get the supplement industry.” That’s not the case at all. I’m really more puzzled about why the supplement industry hasn’t done a better job of tackling this obvious problem that seems to continue with contamination and bad labeling. But then, if you do really start to do a better job inspecting your suppliers’ factories, you’re going to have to pass on those costs to the consumers. They might not be willing to pay for it, especially a consumer who isn’t making a living out of pro sports, and could care less if the supplement is contaminated.

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