A Short History of Doping in Athletics (+infographic)

7 (and more) facts you probably didn't know about doping in athletics

It is time to investigate a very serious problem that is most often overlooked or treated superficially by athletes. This affects seriously both the athlete’s health and wellbeing and its professional career.

Doping is defined as the use of a substance (such as an anabolic steroid or erythropoietin) or technique (such as blood transfusions) to illegally improve athletic performance. The first use of the word doping is documented in the year 1900.


The type of substances or techniques used by athletes to improve their performance can be categorized as below (in alphabetical order):
Beta-2 agonists
A class of drugs that cause muscle relaxation, improving coordination and slowing down heart beats.

Blood transfusion

This is a method by which the athlete increases the concentration of red cells in the blood increasing its oxygen transportation capacities and therefore the athlete’s performance. This method is most often used in diving sports.


Any of a group of closely related compounds which include cannabinol and the active constituents of cannabis. Used to improve concentration and boost determination.


Any substance that promotes diuresis, that is, the increased production of urine which may hide the effects of other substances and forcibly regulate weight.

Gene doping

Refers to the change of DNA by injecting genes into bone or muscle tissue.


Any substance that blocks the action of regulatory processes of the human body related to muscle growth, fatigue and hormone secretion.


A drug that affects the central nervous system and acts as a pain reliever reducing sensibility


A collection of compounds called receptor modulators that affect the androgen and estrogen receptors that stimulate muscle growth and physical strength


Any of a large class of organic compounds that include many hormones, alkaloids, and vitamins. They are used to increase muscle bulk and strength by accelerating the production of protein and reducing muscle inflammation.


A substance that raises levels of physiological or nervous activity in the body and decreases psychological and physical fatigue.

Peptide hormones

A regulatory substance produced in an organism and transported in tissue fluids such as blood or sap to stimulate specific cells or tissues into action. Used to increase metabolism, stamina, growth and stress resistance.

Athletes were sanctioned also for anomalies in their biological passports, refusal to take a doping test, missing their test or not disclosing their whereabouts as required by the regulations.

History and Evolution

doping in athletics - timeline

The use of performance enhancement drugs can be traced back to the original Olympic Games held in ancient Greece, the roman gladiators who used them to prevent fatigue in battles, WW2 soldiers to the modern side of sports and competitions.

First rule against doping in sports was issued in 1928 by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) who was the first to prohibit doping by athletics.

On 26th of August 1960 Danish cyclist Knut Jensen is the first athlete to die due to doping at the Summer Olympics in Rome. Following this incident, Tommy Simpson is the the first Tour de France cyclist to die due to doping in the 1967 competition. As a result, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) instates the Medical Commission to fight against doping practices in sports with the first drug testing at an Olympic Game following just a year later.

Since the implementation of the steroid and drug testing policy by the International Olympic Committee in 1972 there have been 913 documented athletes who were sanctioned under this policy for more than 1170 offenses.

The rising of doping cases documented during the years has a complex causality and may be attributed to an increase in the number of Olympic activities, introduction of new institutions, laws and regulations that expanded the list of forbidden substances but also a possible ease of procurement and increase in usage of these substances.

Substances and Offenses

More than half of sanctions (59%) were related to steroids and stimulants. Steroids is the top substance used with 45% of offenses involving steroids while one in ten offenses involved the use of peptide hormones.

Other drugs have lower rates as may be specific only to a niche sport which is less popular or represented less in competitions such as blood transfusions related to diving.


Sanctions by Event

Sprinting gathered the most sanctions as it constantly requires athletes to push their limits further. Overall, more than half of events include running events or race walking.


Most biological passport anomalies were registered for distance running, marathon and race walk with 86% of cases confined to these events while more than half of sprinting offenses (51%) were related to use steroids and another 19% to the use of stimulants.

Sanctions by Applied Penalty

With 522 out of total sanctions on all events documented receiving it, the sanction most often used in cases of doping is 2 years, applied in 48% of sanctions given (493 of athletes, 54% of them). Public warnings and / or loss of titles was applied in 72 (7%) of sanctioning cases (68 athletes, 7%) while 51(5%) sanctions were life ban (47 athletes, 5%) especially for repeated misdemeanours.


Geographical Distribution

As expected, due to their high number of competing athletes and substance availability, USA and Russia registered the highest number of offenses. Both countries were sanctioned mainly for the use of steroids. The only notable difference is that USA was making more use of stimulants while in Russia there were more biological passport abnormalities.


Along steroids, France and Morocco got also sanctioned more for the use of Hormones.

Most biological passport anomalies were registered in Russia, felony surpassed only by the usage of steroids in this country. Russia also got the most sanctions in the Race walk events with 19% out of the total offenses for Russia and 47% for this event category.

Canada, UK, Nigeria and the US got sanctioned mainly on sprinting as compared to other events.

Morocco got sanctioned mostly for Long distance and Middle distance. Russia, and Morocco got sanctioned for Middle distance more than other countries. Belarus got sanctioned mostly on Shot put and Hammer throw.

Infographic: 7 facts you (probably) didn’t know about doping in athletics

Infographic Doping in Athletics



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