In 1980, Muhammed Ali, a model sportsman in so many ways, was soundly beaten in a fight with Larry Holmes. Following the fight Ali appeared sluggish and had difficulty speaking and walking. He later admitted that, “I took too many thyroid pills. Always used to double up on my vitamins. Bad idea with thyroid pills. Started training at 253 [pounds], went down to 217 [pounds] for the fight. Too much. People saying, ‘Oooh, isn’t he pretty?’ But I was too weak, didn’t feel like dancing. I was dazed. I was in a dream.”1
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Explore This IssueApril 2008
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Any rheumatologist can figure out that Ali had developed a myopathy from the excess thyroid medication he took to trim down for the fight. Ali’s difficulty speaking persisted even after he stopped the thyroid medication, probably a precursor to the Parkinson’s disease that has plagued his later life.
A Boost by Any Other Name
Ali’s use of what he saw as a performance-enhancing drug received no opprobrium (maybe because he lost and the drug likely contributed to his loss). More recent attempts at enhancing athletic performances pharmacologically have been more successful but have led to disqualification. The disruption of the 2006 Tour de France, stripping of Floyd Landis’ victory in the Tour, the controversy over Barry Bonds’ home-run record, and Marion Jones’ admissions on the use of steroids have all made us more aware of the role of drugs in sports.
Performance-enhancing drugs are seen as cheating, a disgraceful shortcut to strength or endurance. A list of banned substances compiled by the bodies that regulate sports includes a variety of stimulants, anabolic steroids, b-adrenergic agents, diuretics, and hormones. But it must be obvious that many of the agents that athletes take offer no less of a boost. The best example of a permissible performance-enhancing substance is Gatorade, a sports drink concocted by researchers at the University of Florida to more rapidly replace the energy, fluid, and electrolytes lost by the Florida Gators football team (hence the name Gatorade) while playing in a swamp in full gear.
The fact that Gatorade enhances athletic performances is a point of pride to the makers of the drink. According to their Web site, “Soon after the researchers introduced their Gatorade formula to the team, the Gators began winning … outlasting a number of heavily favored opponents in the withering heat and finishing the season at 7–4. It was their first winning season in more than a decade.”