Let the "Games" Begin: A Look at Today’s Anti-Doping Measures (Part III)

Just prior to the Rio Olympic Games the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released the Independent McLaren Investigations Report, a damning document that calls for strict penalties against the entire Russian sports organization, in Rio and beyond.

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) removed a small number of Olympic slots from countries (including Russia) due to violations of anti-doping rules earlier. Just prior to the Games the IWF voted to suspend the participation of Russian weightlifters at the 2016 Olympics.

The resulting slots were awarded to representatives of small nations that otherwise might not compete. This action is a quick and effective way to "win friends and influence people" relative to the electoral process conducted near the end of the year.

The recent number of doping violations in weightlifting reinforces the appearance of serious, state-run efforts by numerous countries bent on winning medals. On the other hand we have countries that tend to have solid anti-doping programs in place. These lifters are perhaps not likely to be using PEDs, but what about the possible use of popular and readily available nutritional supplements? This area of concern is often overlooked until it’s too late.

Throughout this series the message has been clear, to both coach and athlete: be familiar with the rules and the procedures, and avoid at all costs anything that might jeopardize eligibility.

Related to that mantra we close this series with a look at what is often perceived as an innocent (and legal) means of possible performance enhancement, that is, the use of nutritional supplements. But in many instances, use of such products may lead to positive results and a suspension.

The Early Days
The idea of food, or nutritional, supplements, for general health or for performance enhancement, has been around since the beginning of civilized life on earth.

When I started lifting in the early 1960s Bob Hoffman ("The Father of American Weightlifting") was getting rich as one of the most successful supplement pioneers. In fact, most informed sources readily explain that Hoffman and York Barbell Company made the bulk of their profits via food supplements, not through selling barbells. Certainly the profit margin was considerably higher in the supplement world. (For more on Hoffman and his supplements read Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell, Pennsylvania State University Press)

Hoffman's Hi-Proteen (intentionally misspelled, no doubt to skirt some regulations) was an industry standard sold in what were then called health food stores. Our choices included items such as:

  • Hi-Proteen Reducing Formula ($2/canister)
  • Special Gain Weight Hi-Proteen ($3/canister or tablets)
  • The gagable Protein from the Sea ($5 per canister or 400 "tasty" tablets)
  • Super Hi-Proteen ("If you want and can afford the best!" $5 for a month's supply)
  • My go-to favorite, Hoffman's Hi-Proteen ($4.50 for 4lbs, $16 for a 16lb carton)

Hey, I was a teenager; who had money? Minimum wage in 1963 was $1.25/hr. (interestingly, the equivalent $9.18 today).

Lon Holy, a top Florida and Southeast superheavyweight, and one of my lifting mentors, related to me a funny story about Hoffman’s protein products. The powder version had been around for a while, but Hoffman then introduced a tablet form of the product in the 1950s. Much easier to carry and use during training, "Some guys in Hollywood (Florida) put 15lbs on their clean and jerk after chewing a handful of those tablets."

Today, such a strong psychological reaction to a protein supplement would be laughable. But, and this is important, one should not discount the placebo effect available from such actions, especially when the costs are high or some notable provides a testimonial as to the product’s success.

In 1972 the AAU National Weightlifting Championships and Olympic Trials were held in Detroit. During the annual Board of Governors meeting it was reported that the FDA (or some other governmental oversight group) had determined that there was more protein in a Hershey’s Mr. Goodbar than in Hoffman’s Hi-Proteen Energy Bar, bringing a good laugh from the collected delegates.

Today's Scene
This multi-billion dollar supplement industry is largely unregulated, which leads to many concerns. In the United States, in the past, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) controlled supplements, but since 1994 the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) oversees the industry. For the most part, the only cautions now enforced are prohibitions from making any claims that a supplement can cure or treat a disease.

Pretty much, any other claim can be made. New technology has allowed laboratories to isolate particular components, or precursors, that add to the mystique of many nutritional products. This allows for some unique marketing efforts, which, with no one looking over the industry's shoulder, may more quickly separate us from our money.

Google protein powder and the most of the first page relates to bodybuilding and/or companies selling the product. The cheapest powders seem to average about $10/lb. The image of a leaner, more muscular body associated with using a particular product may be tempting, but it’s not the supplement that creates that end result.

Twenty years ago, while heading up the National Strength and Conditioning Association, I witnessed the rapid growth in the popularity of creatine supplementation. Most research suggests that creatine works in a safe manner (assuming proper instructions are followed) and may contribute to quicker recovery.

This is what creatine is supposed to do, namely, restore our adenosine triphosphate (ATP), that energy system exhausted through anaerobic activity such as weightlifting. Taking creatine, or any other supplement, in and of itself, does not lead to improved physical performance. It is the ability to recover and get back into the gym and train hard again that leads to improvement.

USADA's Message
The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) includes information in their educational materials that clearly states, "Any athlete who takes a dietary supplement does so at the risk of an anti-doping rule violation and/or adverse health consequences." Numerous athletes have run afoul of drug control rules by innocently (or otherwise) using supplements that trigger a positive result.

"What's the deal? This supplement is supposed to be good for me. I bought it in a health food store." That's a weak excuse that usually does not hold water in court. How can it be that something supposedly good for us suddenly triggers a positive result in anti-doping control?

Consider the options previously described. First, there's no regulation of the industry. Second, the industry is quite profitable (supply and demand). Third, the marketing claims may not be accurate. Finally, the product may contain banned substances.

Why would a nutritional supplement company include a banned substance in a product? To be honest, that's one of the best ways to guarantee the customer gets from the supplement what the marketing says and the customer wants. Bigger muscles, faster recovery, greater power, and/or reduction in body fat… you name it.

And if such a product meets the buyer’s expectation the user is likely to purchase again, right? In contrast, if one spends $20 - $50 for a tub of some magic elixir and it does not deliver, the chances of the customer making another purchase are greatly reduced.

USADA strongly encourages athletes become familiar with www.supplement411.org. This YouTube clip (www.youtube.com/watch?v=50QBwi11ncE) drives home the cautions described above.

I am personally aware of several US lifters who have tested positive when there is no reason to suspect anything other than a nutritional supplement.

  • In one case, a utilized product was removed from the marketplace for about six months, then brought back with an attempt at a positive marketing spin (and little acknowledgement of what had happened). The product reportedly contained ground up animal testicles, thus affecting one's testosterone: epitestosterone ratio.
  • While the USA Weightlifting executive director I dealt with a positive result that caused a lifter to be removed from a team. I was told the athlete had not used any banned substances, only a product from a health food store. I agreed to sample the product for two weeks and then take a non-punitive test. The results, while somewhat inconclusive, indicated that my sample could have easily been called a positive.

So, coaches and athletes: pay attention to supplements! This is truly an area in which caveat emptor, or "buyer beware" is the most solid information. Don’t take chances when it comes to supplements; USADA and WADA both address the topic in great depth and have outstanding resources to assist in making the right decision.

Article will be available on OLift Magazine's website soon. For this and other Coach Newton blogs please check here www.theoliftmag.com/author/newton/.