POSTED: November 5th 2013

JOHN GOODBODY: Research needed to see if hormone drugs have long-term benefit

WADA is set next month to discuss time allocations for bans / Polka Dot Images
WADA is set next month to discuss time allocations for bans / Polka Dot Images

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) As the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prepares next month to discuss whether the ban for competitors taking hormone drugs should be extended to a mandatory four instead of two years, new research suggests that anabolic steroids may have much longer-term benefits than previously thought. In fact, they may have permanent effects on the physical ability of athletes.

Many people have believed that when a competitor came off hormone drugs, the body of the sportsman or woman gradually returned to its previous state. I have always been sceptical of this statement because it seems likely that even if the muscles regressed, the tendons may well have retained their strength because they had been subjected to increased loads.

This latest study, carried out at the University of Oslo, is a valuable addition to the debate, although it was practised out on mice and not humans. Professor Kristian Gundersen said that the discovery was consistent with anecdotal evidence from athletes, who had taken taken hormone drugs, of a “muscle memory”.
The study, published in the ‘Journal of Physiology’, suggests that this is true, even if the competitor has only been taking anabolic steroids for a short time. The team investigated the effects of steroids on muscle reacquisition in mice and found that greater muscle mass and more myonuclei, essential components for muscle fibre function, were apparent after returning to exercise.

Professor Gundersen said:”Mice were briefly exposed to steroids, which resulted in increased muscle mass and number of cell nuclei in the muscle fibres. Three months after the withdrawal of the drug (approximately 15 percent of a mouse’s life span), their muscles grew by 30 percent over six days, following load exercises. The untreated mice”(the placebo group)”grew insignificantly.”

He added:”Training studio folklore suggests that people that have once become strong can easily get strong again even after a long de-training period.” The data also suggests that strength training, when young, might be beneficial later in life since the ability to generate new myonuclei is impaired in the elderly. Strength training increases muscle mass and also power largely by altering the quality of each fibre, by increaing the number of nuclei, rather than adding to the overall number of fibres. 
There have been numerous examples of outstanding competitors being banned for drug-taking and then returning to top-class competition. In the 100 metres at the 2012 Olympics,  both American Justin Gatlin, who was the bronze-medallist, and Britain’s Dwain Chambers, a semi-finalist, had served doping bans for taking hormone drugs.

What Professor Kristian Gundersen recognises is that these findings have to be confirmed by research on humans. However, as John Brewer, Professor of Sport at the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom, says:”The results are clearly of interest.”

What the WADA must now do, as a matter of urgency,  is to fund some extensive research on humans with further investigation into the cellular and molecular mechanism for muscle memory.  If it is shown that hormone drugs do have a permanent benefit to the athlete, then the call for a lifetime ban, even for a first offence, becomes much stronger.

For years, most competitors have advocated a life-time ban when they have been asked in national and international surveys. Perhaps, sometime in the future, they will be getting their wish at last.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2012 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 12th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001. 

Keywords · John Goodbody · WADA · doping · sports

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