Dietary supplements win Olympic gold

Related tags Dietary supplements World anti-doping agency Olympic games

To coin a phrase oft-used by winning athletes, Beijing was 'a good games’ for an increasingly mature dietary supplements industry.

Ninety per cent of the 11,000 athletes in attendance at the Games of the 29th Olympiad used dietary supplements of some kind, according to the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA). There was not a single supplement contamination case.

This will have come as some relief to dietary supplements manufacturers that have not always looked forward to the Olympic Games and other major sporting events as avidly as the public.

For good reason – the extremely high level of scrutiny attached to the bodily inputs of athletes at such meets has on occasion revealed contaminated products that have resulted in athletes being sent home in shame and banned from their respective sports.

Shame too for the industry, as such events fed allegations it was under regulated, its products of erratic quality.

Good games

So perhaps Beijing marks a turning point for the industry. Just as the Chinese capital’s hosting of the event boosted China’s public image (at least while it was on), so too has the supplements industry been given a lift by its clean Games performance.

In the run up to the games, some Greek weightlifters and a US athlete, Jessica Hardy, blamed contaminated supplements for doping offences, defences that held little water with authorities, and increasingly, the public. They were duly banned.

At the Games themselves, some athletes were sent home for doping offences but these were unrelated to supplements use and it seems athletes are less willing to employ the ‘blame it on the supplements I didn’t know were contaminated’ line trotted by Hardy and co.

It’s an argument that has never held much sway with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) anyway, as the body established in 1999 places a 100 per cent onus on athletes to ensure every bodily input is safe – and legal.


For this reason many national sporting bodies have warned athletes against taking any ​dietary supplements due to contamination fears. While many of them retain this stance, change is afoot.

The fact is, as ESSNA chairman Dr Adam Carey notes, if there are safe products on the market that can benefit an athlete’s performance and overall health, it is verging on negligence to advise athletes against them.

Creatine, peptides, green tea and sports drinks are just a few of those of most interest to athletes.

“The fact is there are safe supplements out there,”​ Carey told today on the eve of a meeting with European Union regulators in Brussels about the possibility of Europe-wide sports nutrient guidelines.

“By researching and knowing the manufacturing methods of particular brands, athletes and the general public can be sure products will not be contaminated with steroids and other substances.”

In the UK, the group that looks after the interests of elite athletes – UK Sport – recently advised athletes that dietary supplements could be safely used as long they were tested in WADA-certified labs. Previously it had advised athletes against taking supplements because their safety could not be guaranteed.

Across the pond, the 2007 introduction of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and pending Adverse Event Reporting regulations (AERs), mean quality control in the dietary supplements industry has never been in better shape.

Fifteen years after the 1994 Dietary Supplements and Health Education Act (DSHEA) was writ into US law and about ten years after steroids were banned from supplements there, these regulatory models are also influencing manufacturing practices in developing regions such as Asia and Latin America.


The fact its products can be widely used by athletes at an event like the Olympics where WADA scrutiny is at its most intense, is testimony to an industry that has its house in order. WADA had a 4000-strong banned substances list and conducted about 5000 doping tests in Beijing.

There is still work to be done. A 2007 HFL survey of the US market found steroid contamination in 25 per cent of 58 products tested, but many of these products were manufactured by smaller players on the periphery of the industry.

But the centre is moving in the right direction and should be praised for the mature steps it has taken to promote better and safer supplements to an increasingly interested public.

Many more 'good games' are set to follow.

Shane Starling is the editor of If you would like comment on this article email shane.starling'at'

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