Athletic regulatory bodies have a new headache.
This time, the pain is being caused by placebos (an
unexpected side effect!)
in New Scientist, athletes have found
that they can exert themselves to a greater extent, while under the
influence of opioid pain killers. That is not permitted in
competition, of course, but there is a wrinkle. If they train
while under the influence, then get a placebo prior to competition,
their brains react to the placebo as if it were the real thing.
Thus, they are less limited by pain during the competition.
The regulatory agencies are aware of this, but do not know what to do.
They can’t ban placebos, and there is no urine test to detect
If there were such a test, you can bet an entire cottage
industry would spring up to find a way to fool the test. And
people would pay for it.
The thing is, what the athletes are doing is not really making use of
the placebo effect. Rather, they are undergoing a conditioned
response. A minor point, perhaps, but a purist would not call
this a placebo effect.
Regardless of the terminology, it is a bit of a problem. In
the USA, it is unethical for a physician to prescribe an opioid in the
absence of an appropriate medical condition. And of course it
is illegal for someone to use an opioid without a prescription.
Clearly, that makes it wrong.
It also is reckless. Pain does serve a function, after all.
As we’ve seen from some tragedies involving marathon runners
recently, excessive exertion can be fatal.
In my opinion, it is foolish and senseless to do this. But
then, there are no Olympic medals for common sense.
There is no easy way to detect a short-acting opioid more than a few
days after administration. So unless you are going to screen
the athletes every few days, there is no good way to tell if someone is
Hair samples can be used to detect heroin use up to 90 days out, but
there are a lot of opioids, and it would get to be very expensive to do
screening that way. To complicate matters, there are
legitimate uses for opioids, so even a positive test would not tell you
for sure that there had been an infraction. I have to think
that if someone can get such drugs in the first place, then getting a
fake doctor’s note to explain it would be no problem.
I guess the question is, does it make sense to impose a ban that cannot