Russia’s ban from the Olympics over doping charges has made waves in the international athletic community. Scandals over doping and performance enhancing drugs have become commonplace and have revealed the dark side of sports. Lance Armstrong lost his seven Tour de France titles and Barry Bonds is barred from the Baseball Hall of Fame, due to their respective doping scandals.
Today, more and more athletes are taking a perfectly legal performance enhancer: caffeine. Less than 15 years ago, high doses of caffeine were banned from international sporting events. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which regulates illegal substances in international sports, removed caffeine from its restricted list in 2004. According to the International Olympic Committee, any caffeine concentration over 12 micrograms per milliliter in urine would have been a punishable offense.
The agency has three standards by which it decides the admissibility of substances. If a drug gives a competitive advantage, presents a health risk to athletes, and violates the spirit of the game, the WADA can justify banning the substance. A WADA spokesperson said that only the first of these is true for caffeine.
Just four years after this change, an estimated three in four top athletes were consuming caffeine to obtain a competitive edge. The effects of caffeine are limited compared to more serious PEDs, but are not insignificant. Experts estimate caffeine gives a one to two percent increase in physical performance, which could be just enough to mean the difference between a gold and silver medal at the top levels of a sport. Among soccer players, those who consumed caffeine were able to run faster and longer than those who did not.
In some ways, the psychological effects may be more important than the physiological ones. Caffeine is a huge part of modern culture. The productivity booster is in coffee, tea, and soda, but also an ever-growing energy-drink market. New products have gained a lot of traction over the past couple of years. Five Hour Energy Shots are just one example of recent mental stimulants. Sales of energy drink beverages and shots in the United States have consistently gone up since 2011, to a now $13.5 billion dollar industry in 2015. For many, caffeine is part of a routine that helps put them in the right mindset; this could be before a big race or a day in the office.
Anyone can supplement his or her diet and exercise regimen with something to increase performance, but consumption should be monitored closely. Caffeine has addictive properties and can create dependence over time. Many studies show benefits have diminishing returns as the dosages increase with higher probabilities of side effects like insomnia, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attacks, and a worsening of underlying medical conditions.