Approaching PEDs in combat sport

Obviously, performance enhancing drugs enhance the performance of athletes who can see results in the form increased abilities in endurance, strength and explosive abilities depending on the compounds used and the athletic requirements for an athlete’s sport. An important note to make is that the type of compound also matters as to avoid drug testing parameters. The use of steroids or other PEDS in sports have been a longstanding controversial issue due to the benefits given to the athletes, but the classification of performance enhancing drugs is not limited to the use of anabolic steroids. PEDs are classified pretty vaguely as anything that can enhance an individual’s performance can be considered one, but the differences between cheating or not depends on the tolerance of certain organizations for certain compounds or the amount of a particular compound. Many organizations have deferred to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) or any national antidoping agency such as USADA that use their banned substance lists and different drug testing parameters to try and create a fair playing field in the world of sports. It is dependent on the choice of athletic commissions and organizations for the stringency of the testing and how they dole out punishment for their athletes. Some sports, federations or countries may have many variations when it comes to their list of rules and enforcement of them. When it comes to combat sports, many fighters have been caught and appropriately punished (sometimes) for their transgressions, yet PEDs are still prevalent in fighting and it seems that everyone knows it. 

The incentive to use performance enhancing drugs in most sports is usually due to a certain competitive spirit, peer pressure and the amount of money one can earn. Certain athletes may do whatever it takes to win whether it is fair or not since some people just don’t care about the rules or in some cases are subject to their coaching staff’s competitive spirit. There are many cases of athletes not knowing that they are taking a banned substance that their coaches have been administering to them. An athlete may also know, or assume, that the rest of their competition at higher levels of the sport are taking PEDs and think that they themselves have to take PEDs in order to reach those elite levels. Also knowing that reaching elite levels of your sport would come with bigger contracts and sponsorship deals would incentivize an athlete to take PEDs since everyone knows that money is one of the biggest influences. You can’t know if you would do same or not unless that multi-million dollar contract is in front of you. 

When it comes to combat sports, you are sometimes putting years of your life or your life entirely on the line for your sport. Serious injury usually occurs anytime a fighter hops into the cage, ring or mat, and the use of PEDs to give someone an advantage is much more dangerous in the world of combat sports than in any other sporting arena. Imagine being an amateur fighter going against another who is now able to increase his stamina and power due to drug use. That fighter has, without any increase in skill level or training, decreased your chances of victory and increased your chances of living less. Of course, the use of PEDs in other sports can endanger the opposition especially in contact sports like football, but in the context of combat sports, it is much more of a health hazard to go up against an enhanced athlete. 

Testing for PEDs would seem like a no-brainer. I’d assume that anyone would want to catch athletes who are breaking the rules and putting others at a higher risk, but testing is not as good at catching athletes who are doping as many may think. In my opinion, the UFC has the best standard for testing in the world of combat sports with its use of USADA testing protocols that allow for their fighters to be tested at random for a massive list of compounds through their use of blood and urine analysis. But even with the chance of being randomly selected for testing, athletes are still being caught. Unfortunately, there are many ways around some of the most stringent testing protocols. Certain compounds are nearly impossible to detect as the tests being used are only able to detect known compounds. If an athlete is able to skirt around testing by their use of a novel substance, the tests will not be able to detect it. There are also compounds with half-lives less than a few hours which, even with random testing, could allow an athlete to get rid of a compound and its detectable metabolites within a day or two. Unfortunately, I don’t think there could be a perfect testing protocol that could keep up with the development of novel compounds and very short half-lives. Testing of athletes weekly and randomly would cost any organization millions of dollars per year as the tests can be quite expensive and an immense inconvenience to the athletes. 

It would seem that current testing does catch the fighters who are cheating, but those are the fighters who manage to get caught. Some fighters may have their PEDs under control and know how to manage detection times and get around testing. Some fighters who get caught using PEDs later in their careers are still subject to scrutiny because who truly knows if they weren’t using earlier and just now got caught due to improved testing? Fighters who do get caught usually face fines and lengthy suspension, but it has been shown in the Journal of Physiology (2013) that short term uses of PEDs can still boost performance later on due to the increased myonuclei retention and effects on muscle memory. In that case, should the fighters who have been caught still be able to return? It is hard to create perfect testing parameters and punishments for PED use and it leaves a questionable aura around many fighters and organizations because no one can truly know besides the fighters themselves. 

It can be hard to trust fighters to stay honest as it seems that some who have been adored by fans have been caught at some point with a banned substance. And who is to say that those who haven’t been caught are still clean fighters? I’d love to see an even playing field where it is only natural limits, skill, and training that determines the best fighters; which is the principle behind drug testing, but it is hard to ignore how easy it is to get around it. At times I think it would be easier to get rid of all the rules and just let fighters beat each other up as juiced up muscle monkeys. That would hurt the integrity of combat sports just as it would hurt the integrity of other sports since no champions or records should be determined by drugs. But I will say, it would still be very entertaining to juice everyone up and just watch what happens.