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International Sports and Performance Enhancing Drugs, Part 1

Foreign Policy Policy Brief #153 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | October 24, 2022

Header photo taken from: Marijuana Moment

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Doping has long cast a shadow of controversy over the historic sports competition in France as with baseball in the U.S. Changing attitudes in organizing such sports has led to increasing scrutiny and banning of substances even historically acceptable as they are re-evaluated for adverse affects on physical and mental performance of athletes.

Photo taken from: The Creative Commons

Policy Summary

The World Anti-Doping Agency, known as WADA, is the overseer of the sporting world’s rules on banned substances for athletes. Recently, they updated their rules to continue to ban marijuana-based drugs (containing THC), and added a new drug to the list, tramadol; an opiate painkiller used often in cycling.

The use of drugs in sports for performance benefits goes back many, many years. The early riders of the Tour de France used alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs to fuel their endurance feats and then there is the use of anabolic steroids across the sport of baseball, or the use of blood transfusions and other methods that ruined the career of American cycling legend Lance Armstrong. 

Both of the substances at the center of this article have had consequences on athletics this year, and years prior. Right before the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for having THC in her system during the Olympic Trials – and received a 30-day ban from competition, all but excluding her from the Games.

Policy Analysis

The requirements for WADA to ban a substance, or to have one removed, is to prove three things: the first, that the substance is harmful to the health of an athlete; the second, that the substance can enhance the performance of an athlete; and the final, that it is against the spirit of sport. Marijuana has been a bit of a contentious member of this list, as many countries (and states) have legalized its use for recreation users, and there has been debate regarding its ability to enhance one’s performance athletically.

In fact, there have been studies that suggest marijuana could be an effective treatment tool for concussion related illnesses, and that there is no evidence to support the idea that it provides a performance benefit outside of chronic pain management. One does not need to look further than the American National Institute of Health’s website to find such studies.

Sha’Carri Richardson’s 30-day ban from competing in the Olympics for the United States raised a major question over the use of marijuana in sports. She tested positive for the substance at the Olympic Trials. She explained this by stating that she learned of the death of her biological mother by a reporter, and was distraught and sought the relief of marijuana to cope with her feelings of grief. 

It is important to note that marijuana use is acceptable, amongst athletes, as long as it is used outside of a competition – so it is acceptable to use it during the months of training leading up to a major event, but not at/during the event. 


The World Anti-Doping Agency will add the painkiller tramadol to the list of banned substances for athletes in competition from 2024 and has maintained its ban on cannabis after a review.

Photo taken from: REUTERS / George Frey

(click or tap to enlargen)

WADA also states that the test for marijuana at competitions has a high threshold, which in their eyes is trying to account for the amount of THC that may be in one’s system as a recreational user, who used the substance prior to competing.

The more serious and pressing concern in the WADA list of banned substances is the inclusion of tramadol, an opiate painkiller. Though, this will officially take effect in January of 2024. WADA is hoping that by waiting to put the substance on the list immediately, that athletes and medical professionals can work together to educate each other and work to get rid of its use in sport. 

WADA’s Monitoring Program found that between the years of 2012 and 2015 that 71-82% of tramadol use was in professional cycling. The most notable moment of the year, regarding this substance, was the disqualification of Nairo Quintana from the results at the end of the Tour de France, as the race had already banned that substance (he had placed 6th in the three week Grand Tour). 

His disqualification from the race is being fought in the Court of Arbitration For Sport. WADA states that this drug is dangerous due to its risk for addiction among athletes, and also the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) suggests that it is a major risk for the riders in the peloton due to the drug’s side effects. WADA also said that tramadol is “against the spirit of sport”, along with it being clearly harmful to athletes and providing a clear, though dangerous, performance benefit.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6116792/ )

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