The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is once again considering a ban on caffeine after an Australian Football League (AFL) player suffered a bad reaction to a sleeping tablet he took to counter the effects of a caffeine buzz.
The footballer was apparently engaging in what is considered normal, if not totally acceptable, practice for players in the AFL. Some players are reportedly taking as many as six caffeine tablets per match as a game-day stimulant and then using sleeping tablets to come down from the caffeine-induced high. It should be noted that there is no evidence that taking caffeine alone would have jeopardized the player’s health. And under Australian law, athletes can legally use both caffeine and sleeping pills.
Caffeine was on WADA’s list of banned substances at one time, but the agency delisted the popular substance in 2004 because it proved too difficult to determine if caffeine in the human body came from the incidental use of coffee and soft drinks or from supplements. According to WADA president John Fahey, the agency’s criteria for banning a substance is whether it gives a competitive edge, is potentially injurious to health and is against the spirit of sport. In Fahey’s opinion, caffeine failed all three of those tests and he told The Age newspaper he intends to ask the agency’s medical committee to consider a new ban when it meets in September.
Fahey may be right, especially with regard to the first two tests. The question of whether caffeine is a performance enhancing substance in sport is no longer a subject of debate. Substantial research going back more than three decades has confirmed that caffeine actually does improve athletic performance. Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky of McMaster University in Canada told The New York Times in a 2009 article that, “There is so much data on this that it’s unbelievable. It’s just unequivocal that caffeine improves performance. It’s been shown in well-respected labs in multiple places around the world.”
There is no need to consult labs around the world to confirm Dr. Tarnopolsky’s statement. One need only look at friends, neighbors and co-workers, many of whom need a jolt of java or Mountain Dew to kick-start their day and/or to get them through the afternoon. Common sense suggests that athletes are no different than non-athletes when it comes to the benefits of using caffeine. There’s a reason behind the recent popularity and explosive sales of energy drinks, such as AMP, Red Bull and others. According to Dr. Tarnopolsky, even regular coffee drinkers can benefit if they drink a cup of Joe before exercising.
Off course, there are side effects from using caffeine, as there are with most drugs. According to Dr. Tarnopolsky, caffeine increases the heart rate and blood pressure, particularly in people who are not regular users. In many people, those potentially negative effects go away after several days. But the benefit of caffeine on athletic performance continues with additional use.
The performance improvement from caffeine in controlled laboratory settings can be as much as 20-25% according to Dr. Tarnopolsky. However, in the real world, performance improvement by the normal person may average only five percent. But even that number is significant, especially when dealing with world-class athletes who are more or less equal in other respects.
It is also possible to reach a point of diminishing returns regarding the use of caffeine. In one study conducted by Terry Graham, Chairman of the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences of the University of Guelph in Canada, athletes with 9 milligrams per kilogram in their system actually did worse in performance than those without caffeine in their systems. That’s as little as 3-4 eight ounce cups of coffee, depending on the brand, for a 150 pound person.
Given their history, it’s difficult to take WADA seriously. The self-serving, publicity-hungry organization pursues an agenda designed to justify and glorify its existence. This is the same organization that backed off an attempt to ban the use of barometric chambers – oxygen tents – in 2006, only to ban the use of bottled oxygen in 2009.
WADA may or may not put caffeine back on the prohibited list. But one thing is certain: The agency will continue to pursue an agenda designed to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.