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The Link Between Athletes and Drug Abuse

When the New England Patriots were caught breaking the NFL’s rules repeatedly in recent years, Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana was asked what he thought. His reply, “they always say ‘if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’,” speaks to the immense pressure to succeed in all levels of all sports. More recently, the Russian Olympic Committee was punished due to widespread doping – the use of performance-enhancing drugs and treatments – among their athletes in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. As a result, when PyeongChang hosted the 2018 Winter Olympics, Russian athletes cleared to compete had to do so under the Olympic flag as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia” instead of being able to represent their own country.

Given the serious consequences that come with using drugs to enhance athletic performance, why do so many athletes take the risk? And looking at all sports levels, is doping the only drug abuse problem causing concern? Let’s find out.

Olympic Athletes and Doping

While a number of doping methods are relatively recent developments, cheating has been a part of the proceedings since the first Olympic games held in Ancient Greece. Athletes competed in the nude, so they couldn’t hide items that might give them an advantage. Not to be deterred, some turned to risky dietary choices that might boost their performance. The penalties for cheating ranged from public shaming to being sold into slavery.

When the modern Olympic games began in the late 1800s, some competitors turned to stimulant cocktails including caffeine, cocaine, heroin and even strychnine. While the methods and substances used continued to evolve, official testing techniques didn’t arrive until the 1960s. Doping and testing have been engaged in their own escalating competition ever since.

It’s difficult to conduct research into the short-term and long-term effects of these kinds of drugs, partly due to ethical concerns. You wouldn’t want to subject research participants to the same levels of exposure as high-performing athletes. However, a number of diseases, mental health issues and disruptions in vital organ function have been linked to a variety of performance enhancing drugs.

Why Is Drug Abuse So Prevalent in Athletes?

Doping exists in nearly all levels of competition in all sports. However, it’s not the only substance abuse problem that athletes face. Those involved with competitive sports may turn to drugs for the following reasons:

  • Performance enhancement
  • Self-medicating mental illness
  • Dealing with stress or anxiety about performing
  • Pain relief from training or injuries
  • Depression or sense of loss due to much earlier retirement ages

Some studies have indicated that athletes could be substantially less likely to receive treatment for mental health issues. Conditions like depression or anxiety carry a negative stigma in competitive circles and could be viewed as signs of weakness or cause for ridicule among their peers. Recently, NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love have come forward to share their personal stories of struggles with mental health issues. Encouragingly, there has been an outpouring of support from their peers and fans alike.

If You Have a Drug Abuse Problem, Cycles of Change Can Help

At Cycles of Change, we treat the whole individual. When you’re suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse (known as co-occurring disorders), it’s vital to treat both because the chances of relapse are much higher if one is left unchecked. Our experienced team will work with you to help you understand your addiction. You will learn how to avoid potential triggers for relapse and healthier coping methods for stress or anxiety. We know that no two people or addictions are alike, so you will receive a customized treatment plan to fit your individual needs. If you’re ready to take the first steps on your recovery journey, contact us now.


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