Drug Testing in Sports

Drug testing in sports covers a more extensive panel of tests than employer drug testing.

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Drug Testing in Sports

Drug testing in sports covers a more extensive panel of tests than employer drug testing.


Systematic drug testing of athletes for performance enhancing drugs didn't start until 1968. Today testing of athletes covers the standard drugs that employers test for, like marijuana, alcohol, and cocaine. Tests may also check for stimulants, including amphetamines, ephedra, or caffeine. The biggest difference with these tests is that they also often cover performance enhancing drugs, like steroids and HGH (human growth hormone). Every organization has its own substance list that it tests, so be sure to contact your league for a list of chemicals screened.

Drug testing in sports isn't always consistent, as highlighted in our article about drug testing in the Olympics. The frequency and predictability of testing in your league can depend on many factors including level of play and funding, however, athletes are much more likely to experience a random drug test than an employee.

Why Athletes are Drug Tested

The most common reason cited for drug testing athletes is to ensure a fair playing field. The rationale is that athletes using performance enhancing drugs (called "doping"), such as steroids or HGH, would have an unfair advantage over athletes relying on their natural abilities. However, the fact that athletes do sometimes get caught using performance enhancing substances suggests a larger pattern of usage that isn't reflected by current testing.

While many only see the negatives of drug testing athletes, it is also intended to help protect athletes. Stimulants in the bloodstream at the time of competition can lead to issues like heart failure. Athletes with a substance abuse problem can be identified for assistance before the behavior pattern potentially ruins an otherwise promising career. Protecting the health of the athlete really relies on promoting a culture of doping-free sports.

Technological advances

The technology for detecting doping has improved a lot since the 70s. However, so has the technology for alternative doping methods. Labs are constantly racing to catch up, but they eventually do. Synthetic testosterone was suspected for a long time and its abuse could only be indirectly shown, but new tests that analyze stable carbon isotope ratios are now routinely applied to detect synthetic testosterone use.

Advances in medicine and biotechnology also mean that coaches, trainers, and athletes have more performance enhancing tools available than ever before. The constant push for breaking performance records pushes the human body to the extent of its ability and these new advances offer the potential to shatter such limits. It also isn't often clear that these advances violate anti-doping rules, since these technologies push into new areas of human potential and areas of regulation that haven't even been considered.