A Dangerous Edge, Part 1

Updated April 3, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

In search of competitive glory, athletes worldwide are jeopardizing their sports, their health — even their lives

by Gerry Brown

As long competitive sports have existed, athletes have tried to get an edge over their competitors. Some have looked to refining or improving their equipment, as in recent America's Cup yachting, or the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, at which Dutch speed skaters arrived with aerodynamic stripes sewn into their uniforms and skaters wearing controversial clap skates demolished several world records.

Others have developed innovative techniques, such as high jumper Dick Fosbury's now ubiquitous "flop", or cross-country skier Bill Koch's "skating" strategy. Still others have tried chemicals or drugs to make them stronger, faster and larger. Such performance-enhancing drugs, vitamins, and nutritional supplements have gotten much attention in recent years.

Most performance enhancers are prohibited by sports' governing bodies, and many of those caught using them have suffered serious consequences. One of the most famous cases involved Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who shattered the world record in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Johnson was stripped of the medal a day later after he tested positive for anabolic steroids in a post-race drug screening.

Anabolic steroids — perhaps the most common type of performance enhancing drugs taken today — are synthetic derivatives of testosterone that help athletes amass more muscle tissue, making them stronger and faster. Steroids have many known harmful, even deadly, side effects. They are not, however, the only substances banned in sports; everything from cold medicine to caffeine can get athletes in hot water with certain sports' federations and leagues.

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