The other side of sports doping

Many athletes have wrongly been accused of doping to enhance their performance. The culprit is often the banned ingredients found in over-the-counter medicines.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Russian tennis champion Maria Sharapova was banned in June after failing a drug test at this year’s Australian Open. But the drug was banned just this year.

Updated Aug 11, 2016

Scandals involving famous sports stars taking drugs to enhance their performance have made headlines around the world in recent years. 

It shook the world when Russian tennis champion Maria Sharapova announced she had tested positive for a banned substance. 

We were hooked onto our mobile, television and computer screens to watch a stoned-faced Lance Armstrong, the disgraced cycling hero, admitting to Oprah Winfrey that for many years he used drugs to beat the competition. 

The Russian doping scandal and its many aspects kept us captivated too. 

Now, in the middle of the Rio Olympics, new controversies continue to surface.

Taiwanese weightlifter Lin Tzu-chi, a former world record holder, was suspended this week for failing a drug test. She’s not the only one. Before her couple of other athletes were also kicked out of the competition.

But every athlete has the right to appeal his or her suspension before the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS). Over the years, many of them have also succeeded in proving that they did not take banned substances intentionally.

So there is another side to this story – the many cases where athletes were wrongly accused and when the anti-doping establishment was quick to pounce on their slightest mistake. 

In many instances the athletes were not even at fault because of how big the grey area between what is prohibited and not had grown.

Dr. Paul Dimeo, a lecturer in sports policy at the University of Stirling, says it's common for athletes to get into trouble after taking medicines which are contaminated with banned drugs.

The system to check the use of performance enhancing drugs has become "very punitive," he told TRT World.

The strict liability principle on which anti-doping rules rely make it the responsibility of the athlete to keep a tab on ingredients in medicines they use.

"There was even the case when athletes had beef steaks in Mexico and found out that it was laced with some banned chemical."

Here are some banned substances found in everyday medication:


This ingredient is found in a variety of prescription drugs recommended for treating symptoms of the common flu. 

However, its sale is tightly regulated in the United States because it can also be source of potent narcotic methamphetamine, popularly known as crystal meth.

But pseudoephedrine is basically a stimulant, banned in the world of sports due to its ability to enhance performances of athletes. 

Andreea Madalina Raducan, the Romanian gymnast who led her team to a stellar victory in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, is the famous victim of this drug. 

Shortly after the competition, International Olympics Committee (IOC) stripped her of the gold medal after her medical tests said she had used it. 

But Raducan and her team maintained her innocence.

She was only 16-years-old at the time and took pills which contained pseudoephedrine on advice of the team doctor to fight a common cold. 

Her case went before Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) where she was absolved from any wrongdoing. 

Yet her title was never restored. 

The IOC felt sorry for her, but insisted that protecting the sanctity of its strict anti-doping code was more important. 

Former UK sprinter and gold medalist Linford Christie also tested positive for the same substance. 


It's a form methamphetamine, a substance banned by the IOC in the 1960s. 

How exactly this compound aids performance enhancement remains debatable.

But authorities have warned that it can be used to extract the powerful stimulant methamphetamine. 

The drug is found in popular decongestants like Vicks nasal spray.

And that's exactly what caught British skier Alain Baxter by surprise in the 2002 winter Olympics. 

It was a time of joy back home when Baxter won a bronze medal, becoming the first athlete from his country to win a skiing title. 

But celebrations were short lived.

Just days later, he was told that his tests showed presence of the banned substance in his body.

He was immediately stripped of the medal.

Baxter was able to prove that the ingredient came from the US version of Vicks nasal sprays which contained Levmetamfetamine.

But the IOC and CAS both dismissed his appeal.

He was never given back the title. 


American sprinter LaShawn Merritt nearly lost his title after he mistakenly took steroid with male enhancement pills. AFP

This steroid is used to treat multiple diseases as well as to revitalise the body. 

Various medicines have prasterone but not necessarily to boost energy…well at least the energy one needs to win a race.

American sprinter LaShawn Merritt, the two time gold medalist, faced a two-year ban in 2011 after his tests came positive for the steroid which he unknowingly consumed when he took male enhancement pills. 

His ban was later overturned by the CAS.


Ross Rebagliati became first snowboarder to win a gold medal. He now sales medical marijuana.

Marijuana, hashish, pot...they fall in the grey area of prohibited substances. 

Now here's the vague legal aspect: an athlete can smoke as much as he or she wants but not during the competition. 

Then there is this threshold of not testing positive beyond 150 nomograms per millimeter (ng/ml) in the blood stream. 

But back in 1998 this limit was set at a low of 15 ng/ml, enough to detect traces from a joint hit taken weeks ago.  

Ross Rebagliati, the Canadian snowboarder, became the first gold medal winner in a snowboarding competition at the Nagono Winter Olympics. 

He didn't even get the chance to enjoy the glory as just a day later he was informed about his disqualification for doping.

His blood test came out with a cannabis ratio of 17.8 ng/ml. 

And just like that, all of Rebagliati’s achievements and his years of hard work was overshadowed by IOC's decision. 

He fought back saying he hadn’t smoked in months and that the only trace of marijuana in his body would come from inhaling what his friends had smoked in previous weeks and months. 

Ultimately the CAS decided in his favor and returned his medal.  

But Rebagliati remembered that embarrassment.

He went on to start a company which sells medical marijuana and became a spokesperson for its use in sports.


It's a drug developed in the 1960s as a stimulant.

But it was also used in pills to treat the common flu. 

Willie Johnston, one of the most remarkable Scottish footballer of all time, lost his reputation because of this drug. 

He was kicked out of the 1978 World Cup after testing positive for stimulant.  

Johnston had taken Reactivan, which contained the prohibited ingredient, on advice of his team doctor.

But amid the media frenzy he was sent home, never to play for Scotland again.


These are few of many cases in which athletes were sacrificed to protect the sanctity of the sport.

The World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) list of prohibited drugs keeps getting longer every year.

The drug meldonium, for which Sharapova has been suspended was put on the list only this January.

She had been taking it for 10 years because of a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes.

And believe it or not caffeine is on the watch-list of substances which could be banned.

Author: Saad Hasan