Viagra and the Athlete: An Adventure in Performance-Enhancing Drug Wonderland

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Viagra and the Athlete: An Adventure in Performance-Enhancing Drug Wonderland
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

“Viagra enhances performance.” 

These words bring to mind a septuagenarian man patting his giddy spouse on the derriere as they scurry up the stairs toward their bedroom. 

Now replace that image with this unconventional one: A future endorsement commercial featuring a 25-year-old elite athlete. 

He has a Greek-god physique and the vitality of a bull.  He is standing next to a frisky Bob Dole.  In the ad, both of them extol the wonders of the little blue pill. The ad ends with a “high five” and a wink at the television camera

Seem surreal and a bit disturbing?  Perhaps.  But it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Why?

The reality of it comes into focus when performance enhancement is put into proper context.  For the elite athlete, taking Viagra may be the difference between barely making the team and securing a Wheaties endorsement. 

“That’s ridiculous!” you may be thinking.  I agree that it seems absurd, but as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction, and this tale rivals any spun by Lewis Carroll. 

Moreover, the Adventure in Performance-Enhancing Drug Wonderland is full of metaphorical rabbit holes, Mad Hatters and a Queen of Hearts or two. 

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Want to know more?  Just follow the White Rabbit.

 

One pill makes you bigger…

What would possess Alice (or Alec), the healthy elite athlete, to venture down the rabbit hole?

The answer: The lure of performance-enhancing drugs.  These pills might not make you taller, but they may make you faster and stronger…and feed your head, too.

Most sports fans are aware of the higher profile performance-enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormone (HGH).  The drugs’ purported abilities to enhance performance are pretty straightforward: increase lean muscle mass, improve strength and reduce lost time to injury.

But what about Viagra, a drug prescribed for erectile dysfunction?

Once the giggle factor wears off, science sobers the senses.  Researchers have done studies with sildenafil—the active ingredient in Viagra—and have reported an increased exercise capacity and reduced pulmonary hypertension at altitude.

What does this mean?

Basically, for the athlete competing at high altitudes, taking sildenafil may help them sustain heart rate and blood flow, resulting in improved endurance. 

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

This means that a football player with a game in Denver or a distance runner competing in Mexico City may try the blue pill to benefit from a little extra at the end.

Yes, Viagra is no longer just for grandpa.

And the party mix doesn’t end there. 

Another popular flavor is bupropion, a drug used to treat depression and to help curb cigarette addiction

How in the world can that help an athlete? 

Essentially, bupropion works on the central nervous system.  Normally, when your core body temperature rises and your muscle fibers fatigue, a message is sent to your brain telling you things are getting a bit heated. 

However, bupropion blunts that message and your body keeps going.  This may benefit a soccer player late in the game.  His body might be overheated, but bupropion slows down the message to the brain. 

The result: the player is able to push past exhaustion.

The drawback: The player may overheat and suffer heat stroke.

Oh well.  To drink from the Cup of Life, one must dance with Death.

Perhaps all of this new information is cluttering your brain, making it difficult to focus.  No worries—just pop some Ritalin or Adderall like the pros do.

Huh?

Yes, the drugs used to treat ADHD are also being employed by athletes to gain an edge by helping them to sustain reaction time and to minimize fatigue.  A rise in the use of drugs for ADHD has been seen in Major League Baseball, where the large amount of players seeking “therapeutic use exemptions” has raised eyebrows.

I find it interesting that the exemptions increased after MLB banned amphetamines. I mean, there can’t be THAT many players suffering from adult-diagnosed ADHD!

Thus, it is quite evident that many drugs are being misused in various sports.  Now the question becomes: What is being done about it?

That depends on whom you ask, and the answers might cause you to scratch your head.

 

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.” 

While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had one Mad Hatter, the anti-doping community has several.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

And unfortunately, these Mad Hatters can’t use mercury exposure as an excuse for their behavior.  No, their madness is caused by inconsistency and incompetency flowing through their veins and clouding their judgment. 

To get an idea of the silliness that permeates the anti-doping mindset, one only has to look at the three criteria the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) uses to ban a substance.  For a substance to make the Prohibited List, it must satisfy two of the three. 

This one is my favorite:

“The use of the substance or method violates the spirit of sport described in the Introduction of the Code.”

Honestly, I have no idea what “the spirit of sport” means, but it sure sounds nice and is vague enough to give the agency plenty of weasel room. 

So, by WADA’s criteria, Ritalin and Adderall are banned from in-competition use, but Viagra is not

Why?  I’m not sure, but I strongly suspect that the answer somehow involves the French.  How else can you explain why a drug for erectile dysfunction gets a pass?

The inconsistency and befuddlement reaches larger proportions when measured across multiple sports leagues and governing bodies.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For example, unlike WADA, Major League Baseball permits the use of Ritalin and Adderall with an exemption. 

Indeed, this is unbalanced, but the folly of it all is more pronounced when looking at how each offense is handled by the leagues and governing bodies.

 

“Off with their heads!” 

At least the Queen of Hearts was consistent in her sentencing—everyone was condemned to the guillotine.

Athletes don’t get that consistency.

If you’re a professional athlete playing in one of the big four major American sports leagues, your punishment for testing “hot” for a banned substance is usually a suspension for multiple games or, if a repeat offender, being suspended for the season.

The stakes are much higher, however, for the Olympic athlete.  Unlike an NBA or MLB player who usually starts competing right away after a suspension, an Olympic athlete could be banned from the sport for years and possibly miss the next Olympic Games.

Furthermore, the injustice cuts even deeper: If found guilty of using a banned substance, an Olympic athlete could be required to forfeit any medals won.

David Paul Morris/Getty Images

In essence, a professional baseball player making millions of dollars avoids scrutiny, but an Olympic curler sharing a room in a youth hostel with three other men must sacrifice a pound of flesh.

Unless there is some type of broad-based criteria throughout the sports world holding athletes in every arena to the same standard, maddening inequities will abound and a kangaroo-court environment shall continue to thrive.

 

Through the Looking Glass (and What the Future Holds)

So, where does the sequel to this tale go from here?  Nowhere, really.

You see, the story stays basically the same because the main characters don’t change.

First of all, there will always be the attention-seeking wannabes like Victor Conte, founder of BALCO, and unsavory medical professionals, like the ones documented in the book Breaking the Chain, who hope to obtain fortune and glory through beating the system and enabling the athletes.

Secondly, governing agencies like WADA will continue tripping over themselves and staying five-steps behind the Conte-types, always losing the game of cat-and-mouse.  And major sports leagues, like the NFL and MLB, will pay lip service to the problem so as to keep Congress off their backs.

Lastly, athletes will continue to look for ways to beat the system so that they can gain an edge.

What about the fans? 

I can speak for no one, but myself.  As such, I strongly recommend that all sports fans join me in the Land of Blissful Acceptance.  It’s a rather compromised existence, but an existence, nonetheless. 

So hurry along—it’s 6:00 and we shan’t be late for tea.

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