Lance Armstrong & Doping

The drugs that helped Lance Armstrong become an international athletics icon

January 18, 2013

By Michal Kapral Actually, it is about the drugs. After Lance Armstrong’s admission to Oprah that he doped in his seven Tour de France victories, the common refrain among journalists and pundits is that it isn’t about his abuse of performance-enhancing substances, but rather it’s the fact that Armstrong built an empire based on lies, bullying and deep-seeded deceit. While that may be the case, when it comes right down to it, this really is about the drugs. If it weren’t for the effectiveness of the performance-enhancing substances that Armstrong admitted to using, there never would have been a Lance Armstrong as we know him. Armstrong was a mediocre rider before his first Tour victory in 1999, dropping out of the Tour three times in the mid-‘90s and finishing 36th in 1995. It’s an amazing testament to the power of his doping regime that he was able to rise to the top of the grueling sport to the point where he was so confident in his program that, in his words to Oprah, “the winning was more phoned-in.” Was Armstrong simply the best rider still in a sport that was rife with other dopers? No, as the U.S. anti-doping agency’s “Reasoned Decision” document showed in great detail, it’s much more likely that he did whatever it took to establish and maintain a sophisticated (and costly) doping program within this U.S. Postal team, but also that Armstrong’s body responded spectacularly well to the drugs he was taking. As sports scientist Ross Tucker wrote on the Science of Sport blog last year, “There is no doubt at all that drugs affect people differently. You and I may take two aspirin for a headache. Mine gets worse, you fall asleep 30 minutes later. Individual differences mean that you cannot assume, even if everyone dopes the same (which they don't …), that the race is equal.” Apart from the fact that the drugs affect different athletes in different ways, there’s another reason performance-enhancing substances are banned from many sports: they can be dangerous. In the Oprah interview, Armstrong admitted to using EPO, blood doping, testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone. Here are the risks of each substance:

EPO (Erythropoietin)

What it is: A peptide hormone that acts on the bone marrow to stimulate red blood cell production. Possible side effects from abuse: Increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cerebral or pulmonary embolism and autoimmune diseases.

Blood Doping

What it is: There are different forms of blood doping, but they all involve techniques or added substances to increase red blood cell mass, thus allowing the body to transport more oxygen to working muscles. Possible side effects from abuse: Viruses or other serious health risks from improper storage of the blood being transfused. High red blood cell count also increases risk of heart attack, stroke and pulmonary or cerebral embolism.


What it is: A hormone produced primarily in the testicles, which stimulates red blood cell production, muscle strength and mass, bone density, fat distribution and sex drive. Possible side effects from abuse: Increased risk of heart disease, sleep apnea, acne, stimulation of cancerous growths.


What it is: A steroid hormone release by the adrenal gland that reduces inflammation and pain. Possible side effects from abuse: hyperglycemia, diabetes, osteoporosis, anxiety, depression and cataracts.

Human Growth Hormone (hGH)

What it is: A hormone that stimulates growth factors that result in bone growth and plays a key role in muscle and organ growth. Possible side effects from abuse: Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, muscle, joint and bone pain, hypertension and cardiac deficiency, accelerated osteoarthritis.