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Highlighting the issues of drug use in sport: Olympic special

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Who: Undergraduate students and A level and GCSE pupils from local schools and colleges. The project was run by Charlotte Haigh, David Lewis and Daniel Mills.

What: Mock drug testing lab

Why: To get pupils engaged with thinking about ethical issues surrounding taking illegal substances to enhance sporting performance

Where: University of Leeds

Project description

Drug use in sport

As part of University of Leeds events for National Science Week, the Performance 2012 project invited A level and GCSE pupils from local schools and colleges to come and learn more about drugs in sport. Students were given the chance to carry out a mock drugs test and this was followed by a debate on the ethics of the use of drugs and gene doping in sport. This was run by the University of Leeds and the British Science Association West Yorkshire Branch and funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The aims of this session were;

1. To allow students to have experience of developing their lab skills within the University of Leeds

2. Raise students awareness of the performance enhancing drug EPO (Erythropoietin) and its’ effects within sport

3. Allow students to gain knowledge and experience of the testing procedure used on real athlete’s samples in the Olympics

The students deduced from their experimental findings that out of the 4 athletes samples tested, one was well within the normal range (1-24 mU/ml), one sample was on the borderline of normal range, one sample was above the threshold but not by much and the last athlete's EPO levels were a long way above the threshold.

Ethical debate

Following time in the lab, the pupils were encouraged to debate which of the mock athlete’s they had tested they believed to be cheating and the implications and issues with this. It was highlighted that the athletes being guilty or not guilty may not be as clear as the test suggests. For example the sample which was within the normal threshold could still come from an athlete who had used EPO but had also used a masking agent or given a false sample. The samples around the borderline could have occurred from either use of EPO or simply been a result of altitude training. Even the sample which was well above the normal level does not necessarily mean the athlete was guilty. There have been athletes, such as skier Eero Mäntyranta and tri-athlete Rutger Beke, who returned unusually high values and were thought to be guilty only to be proved innocent. Beke proved that his sample had been contaminated by bacteria which caused it to appear that he had excessive levels of EPO. In Mäntyranta’s case physiological testing showed that he actually had a genetic mutation of his EPO receptor gene which caused him to produce normal levels of EPO but an unusually high response EPO i.e. erythropoiesis.

After discussing the issues surrounding drugs testing pupils were then introduced to the idea of using Gene Doping to enhance performance. They were then encouraged to consider this issues from multiple view points;

  • The athlete
  • The coach
  • Other Athletes
  • Scientists/Doctors
  • Fans
  • Sporting Governing Bodies

What worked well?

The split between hands on lab work and small group discussion worked well. The session was advertised in the University of Leeds National Science week programme and this was sent to all schools in West Yorkshire. It related to Biology and PE curriculum and this is very important. 

Lessons learned

Not enough time to do all this in 2 hours as the students really were engaged and very interested. The event was oversubscribed so only some schools were chosen to attend but then some let us down at the last minute due to staffing issues.

Resources required

Lab space and spectrophotometer. Two members of the project team delivered the session with help from some interested voluntary undergraduate students from the British Science Association. On this occasion the students were transported by coach paid for by the Wellcome grant but schools usually will pay for themselves.

Top tips

1. Allow plenty of time as the students became more engaged than expected.

2. Don’t underestimate how much time it takes to label tubes! 


Name: Charlotte Haigh

Charlotte is a Public Engagement Ambassador, find out more about her here.