“It may be that some people who’ve resorted to illegal substances first started out with legal supplements,” said Chris Whitehouse, director of strategy at Europe’s peak sports nutrition body, the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA).
“But this is very different to suggesting that supplements represent a gateway to doping. These people presumably consume normal foods as well, but there’s no suggestion that eating chicken or vegetables is the first step to illegal doping.”
The coach in question – Steve Magness – blew the whistle on methods employed at the Nike Oregon Project (NOP) under the stewardship of former marathon champion Alberto Salazar in a BBC TV documentary aired in the summer.
In a discussion of the ethics and motivations behind cheating and doping published this week on his website, Magness suggested the manner in which many athletes consumed supplements like stimulants was indicative of a doping mindset even if the substances and products did not appear on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) official prohibited list of steroids, stimulants, blood boosters and other compounds.
“Research has linked the use of numerous supplements to acting like a ‘gateway’ towards doping,” Magness wrote.
“In other words, it's likely that if we start venturing down the path of ‘Testoboost’ [a product favoured by Salazar] or ‘EPO boost’ that it's a slippery slope towards doping. Does that mean you're going to cross that line? Not necessarily, but research shows that it becomes easier to cross the next line as more and more becomes acceptable.”
He said the psychology of cheating was dominated by what is perceived to be acceptable to get away with, rather than legal, financial or other deterrents. The coach suggested many sports were dominated by a culture of doping and cheating that was so pervasive many doping athletes did not actually believe themselves to be cheating.
His comments come at a time of heightened public awareness and scepticism toward the ‘fueling’ methods of elite amid scandal after doping scandal from athletics to rugby to weightlifting to cycling.
The thin line between optimising nutrition and training methods and doping is being excoriated like never before and for a coach like Magness, separating the two spheres is naïve.
“From a WADA/USADA [US Anti-Doping Agency] perspective, I'd track supplement and legal drug use,” he wrote.
“They already require it as declaration of use on their forms [elite athlete supplement declarations], and perhaps they are tracking it. But I'd put a system in place where if the number or kinds of supplements increased beyond a low level, (A) I'd increase target testing and (B) I'd try an immediate intervention. This could be something as simple as a reminder to that person on why they got into sports, the beauty of clean sport, and perhaps a subtle reminder of their morality and a signing of a pledge to stay clean.”
Whitehouse disputed the assertion, noting, “Thousands of people engaging in sport and activity at all levels use and benefit from legal sports nutrition products. The research available does not indicate any sense of causality for the consumption of illegal substances.”
Contaminated or inadvertent supplement use is the most common defence offered by athletes who return positive doping controls, although it is a defence that rarely succeeds, especially with product assurance services in place like HFL-owned Informed-Sport in the UK which lists hundreds of thoroughly tested products.
On that matter Whitehouse said last year: “Athletes continue to talk tosh about contaminated supplements. No responsible manufacturer or brand manager wants to see contaminated product on the market, it undermines the value of the business.
“Furthermore, isn’t it bizarre how the ingredient detected by testing athletes is always one that would help their performance? It’s time sports professionals played by the rules and stopped using sports supplements as a fig leaf to hide their illegal activities.”
In a sports nutrition congress ESSNA hosted in Brussels last week, the group noted it had stepped up its anti-compliance measures that included better policing and tougher action against transgressors, the adoption of a code of practice and the publication of a consumer guide.
Magness, who now works as an athletics coach at the University of Houston, has been joined by more than 15 former NOP athletes accusing Salazar, the coach of British long distance runner Mo Farah, of unscrupulous practices including encouraging athletes to apply for therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) to gain access to prohibited substances like corticosteroids or hormones even when no medical need existed.
Salazar’s preference for testosterone–boosting supplements was mentioned, with the BBC documentary suggesting these may have been substituted with illegal testosterone products on some occasions.
WADA and USADA are investigating the allegations along with blood test-based assertions that widespread doping in athletics over more than a decade has gone unnoticed by the governing body the IAAF (Intenrational Association of Athletics Federations).