Olympic Pistol Shooter Used Anti-Trembling Drug to Steady His Hands

By Eliza Strickland | August 18, 2008 1:01 pm

pistol gun shootingIn the first major doping scandal of the Beijing Olympics, a North Korean pistol shooter has been stripped of his silver and bronze medals after testing positive for the drug propranolol. The drug, which belongs to a class called beta-blockers, would not be considered a performance-enhancing drug in most sports; it works by blocking the action of adrenaline, and therefore lowers blood pressure and heart rate.

Cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar explains that while propranolol is used to treat high blood pressure, it has additional uses: “It’s also used to treat other conditions that are mediated by high adrenaline levels, such as tremor and performance anxiety. Beta blockers don’t lower the anxiety level, but they lower manifestations of the anxiety, such as fast heart rate, sweating, and tremor” [Scientific American]. Anti-doping officials from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) believe that the shooter, Kim Jong Su, used the drug to keep his hands from shaking during the competition.

The drug test was conducted during the competition, and officials say they’re convinced that Kim was trying to cheat. Professor Arne Ljungqvist, the head of the IOC’s medical commission, was in no doubt that he had deliberately taken drugs. “This beta-blocking agent is banned only in certain sports such as shooting and archery which require great control. Therefore I can only describe it, (the drug-taking) as deliberate” [AFP]. Kim was expelled from the Olympic village on Friday.

Human rights activists in South Korean have already expressed concern that the oppressive North Korean regime will punish Kim for “humiliating” the nation. [T]here is a high possibility of punishments such as imprisonment and labor training…. [W]hen the North Korean national soccer team was defeated in the 1994 World Cup, Kim Jong Il ordered “Do not let them go abroad for years” [The Daily NK].

Several other athletes have been expelled from the games: A Greek hurdler who won the gold in the 2004 Olympics tested positive for steroids, and a Spanish cycler tested positive for the hormone EPO. A Vietnamese gymnast also tested positive for a banned diuretic, but Olympic officials say she may have simply received bad advice about what medications she could take. The IOC is conducting a record 4,500 drug tests in Beijing, up from 3,600 in Athens [AP].

But even as anti-doping officials increase surveillance, unscrupulous athletes are investigating new ways to gain an edge. DISCOVER reports from the frontier of performance-enhancing medical technology in the recent article, “Will Genetic Therapy Destroy Sports?

Image: flickr/AMagill

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Damian

    There’s an Olympic pistol shooting event? How come all they play on television is swimming and beach volleyball?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    There’s a lot more to the Olympics than Michael Phelps. Like table-tennis (otherwise known as ping-pong), which has gotten incredibly high-tech and intense:


  • Jeremy Rose

    Are all beta-blockers banned in those 2 sports? Seems to me kinda difficult to limit a common medicinal class used in cardiovascular disease. Did the athlete have a medicical purpose for the medication?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Apparently all beta-blockers are indeed banned in archery and shooting, and there’s no “therapeutic use exemption.” However, it’s my understanding that they only test these athletes for the drug during the competition, so presumably an athlete that had high blood pressure wouldn’t be barred from taking the drug throughout his or her life.

    On a side note, the World Anti-Doping Agency bans beta-blockers not just in shooting and archery, but also some other competitive events like billiards, chess, and nine-pin bowling.

  • Bill Rowe

    “Are all beta-blockers banned in those 2 sports? Seems to me kinda difficult to limit a common medicinal class used in cardiovascular disease.” I suspect people who would normally take beta-blockers don’t get to the highest levels of completive pistol and rifle shooting because of the the tremors, shakes, and general motion associated with their condition.

  • Chad

    “There’s an Olympic pistol shooting event? How come all they play on television is swimming and beach volleyball?”

    Political correctness for you. Can’t show guns being used in a fun friendly way! There are pistol and rifle, air pistol and air rifle, as well as shotgun events in the Olympics.

    But the pistol events do not use a 357 or 44 revolver as is shown in the article. They use specialized 22lr pistols that look like space guns due to their ergonomic design.

  • JR

    No, that’s NRA brainwashing crap. There are plenty of sports that don’t get airtime, including one or two of my favorites.

    Let’s see. What do the named sports have in common? Scantily clad people in their prime. In other words, broad mass/sex appeal with lucrative commercial opportunity. How about rednecks* gently cradling and squeezing their guns? I’ll pass, thanks.

    *Gross generalization of participants, yet it’s a redneck sport so I’m not entirely apologetic.

  • http://www.youtube.com/results?search_type=&search_query=issf HB

    Beta-blockers can be substituted for drugs that are not prohibited in sport.

    The shooting disciplines that make up those in the Olympic/Commonwealth Games are precision target sports. Most people do not have the opportunity to watch these sports on the televised Olympics. Check out the link below if you’re interested in what the disciplines in the Olympics are like. Most people are understandably ignorant of the sport.
    Sports are not sports because of the appeal they may have to viewers. Most people would agree that shooting is not a spectator sport ‘JR’…

  • http://www.youtube.com/results?search_type=&search_query=issf HB

    *Other drugs that are not prohibited in sport can be substituted for Beta-blockers.

  • Parashooter

    HB. Beta Blockers can NOT be substituted for a Calcium Channel Blocker in people that have a damaged heart muscle form a heart attack (documented on the web).

    Eliza. Yes Beta Blockers are on the banned drug list put out by World Anti Doping Association WADA but the WADA web site says that a TUE may be granted if the 3 conditions are met. 1) no significant advantage is gained over a competitor. 2) There is no alternative drug. & 3) withholding the drug would cause significant heath risks to the athlete.

    The effect of a Beta blocker lowers the heart rate. So if 2 health athletes compete in shooting for example and one takes a beta blocker he will have a lower heart rate and an advantage. He would be cheating. However if a person that has had a heart attack and is on a beta-blocker, which is controlling his heart rate but not below that of the healthy athlete, and was shooting against a healthy shooter with a normal heart rate, would that be an advantage over the healthy athlete? I dont think it would.

    Anti doping is there to catch cheats, but in doing so sometimes it also chucks out the athlete with a genuine medical condition. This should not happen if WADA follow their own rules and the athlete with medical documentation and testing can meet the 3 criteria.

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