Athletics, Quackery, and Exercise
Tommy Boone, PhD, MPH, MA, FASEP, EPC
Professor and Chair
Director, Exercise Physiology Laboratories
Department of Exercise Physiology
The College of St. Scholastica
Duluth, MN 55811
“People shouldn’t feel pressured
to win at all costs. Sport should be about the love of the game –
about striving for excellence and being the best you can be within your
abilities.” -- Daniel Igali, Olympic Gold Wrestling Champion 
Before computers and other fancy technologies,
long ago, there were cowboys who played cards. It was then (and still
is) a man’s game! Men made themselves or proved their manliness through
cards. If he won the hand night after night, week after week, he
was somebody. At least that is what he thought. The gun hanging
from his hip helped, especially if he was a fast shooter. “Mess with
me and your dead” was the unspoken words among card players. Worst
yet, to hear someone across the table say, “you’re a cheater”. That
was bad. Even if he had not cheated, he would have to fight (perhaps,
to his death) to defend his honor. His defense was his gun.
Obviously, anyone who didn’t live by the gun generally died a quick death.
Today, everything is different. No
one seems to speaks of cheating anymore. No one seems to care that
athletes cheat or that various sports professionals prostitute themselves
for money. Only just recently did anyone care that the CEOs of big
companies cheated their stockholders. And, even then, it seems that
only a few dozen good men and women out of thousands of cheaters are focused
to stop it. It seems that only a hand full of athletes, parents,
coaches, and professionals are concerned with cheaters walking off with
the big money! Cheating is big business. It is an ethical problem,
whether it is business or sports.
This article is concerned with the consumer
and athletes who use products and/or services of various supplement companies,
coaches, athletic trainers, exercise physiologists, and various healthcare
providers. The purpose is to point out the obvious deceit or fraud
(quackery) in athletics, health, and fitness. As an exercise physiologist,
you will be better informed to make ethical decisions. This should
be important to exercise physiologists, especially since the emergence
of athletic and health consumerism is a significant factor to improving
sports and wellness, respectively.
By athletic consumerism, most writers mean
the age of unprecedented desire and/or expectation to win. Athletes
embrace medical charlatans and fitness myths. They even thrive upon
quacks and fraudulent remedies and devices to win. The gullibility
of athletes is huge. Their ignorance is apparently even bigger.
Why they believe in unscientific practices and deceit in the marketplace
of strength development is obvious. They want the results, and they
are willing to forego the precaution of “buyer-beware”. The continued
indulges in quackery is explained in the athletes’ behavior to win.
The problem is multifaceted. First, there is direct damage to the
athlete. Second, there is the rising cost of unethical behavior that
results from the ineffective if not dangerous sports supplement practices.
There is ample reason to believe that many
athletes and sport nutritionists provide fertile ground in which the seeds
of quackery will likely grow and mature. They are likely to embrace
the idea that anything is worth a try if there is a chance of winning.
Athletes therefore who believe that extra vitamins provide more pep and
energy for physical performance don’t really care about what science has
to say. They think that if there is a chance that the vitamins may
help, then they will use them. This is probably the driving force
behind many athletes becoming victims of quackery. Reasons other
than a faulty belief about sports supplements include the lack of or limitation
of information and fear of failure coupled with longings for winning and
acceptance, emotional immaturity, and personality structure (such as “My
mind is made up; do not try to change it”). The latter reason is
especially troubling. Unfortunately, some, not all, sports nutritionists
are quacks. Those who take advantage of athletes, claiming that certain
supplements may improve performance are part of the doping problem in sports
whether they choose to believe it or not . And, unfortunately,
in most cases, athletes fail to note the word "may" when it comes to a
supplement improving physical performance . As a result,
they are prime candidates for exploitation.
The title "sport nutritionist" is held
in high esteem by many athletes, so anyone using this title, with or without
academic credentials, is immediately endowed with the “right answers” to
competition. However, the aura of academic expertise is at times
misplaced. Some sport nutritionists are more credible than others,
and many are simply in the game of pushing supplements to make money .
Athletes must come to terms with this dilemma, especially when their character
and athletic career are on the line. It is a very short step between
banned substances and supplements yet to be banned. And, although
it isn’t easy to control the use of sports supplements and/or drugs, athletes
have everything to lose and nothing to gain. After all, there are
athletes who are winners without using supplements and drugs.
Perhaps it is time to consider the values
that associate with athletics. According to sport nutritionists,
of whom many are exercise physiologists, the sport (exercise) nutrition
information is consistent with new advances in research. Hence, the
question: "What can be wrong with researching a product that may increase
the athlete’s ability to run faster, jump higher, or get stronger?"
In short, it is common propaganda that appeals to athletes who will purchase
the products. On one hand, if the product doesn’t work, it is fraud.
On the other hand, if the product should work, it is considered cheating.
From a scientific point of view, why is it important to do research on
a product that might live up to some of the claims but also leave the impression
that using the product may be a deceptive practice? An important
reason is simply that it is popular. Everyone is doing it so why
not do it. There is also the notion of joining the “now generation”.
In other words, if you use or engage in sport nutrition research, then
are a member of the privileged researchers. Why not feel like you
are doing what is “hot”?
This kind of thinking is problematic for
several reasons. Much of it is based on unproven generalizations
. Just because well-known exercise physiologists profess the values
of sports supplements doesn’t mean that there is an actual value!
The message is one that stresses the consequences of getting athletes to
buy into supplements when otherwise product superiority ought to be the
athlete, not supplements. Health, fitness, and athletic results can
exist outside of the influence of advertising, gimmicks, and citing favorable
comments from a few individuals. The use of scientific-sounding terms,
pictures of well-muscled athletes, testimonials, and sugar coated illustrations
that favor supplements are all gimmicks of advertising. In the not
too distant past when there were fewer supplements and even fewer exercise
physiologists involved in selling supplements, athletes performed well
in sports. The notion of taking supplements and/or drugs was viewed
as inappropriate or unethical, if not unsafe or dangerous.
So, what is different today? First,
the money that can be made from sports supplements is big. Second,
it is very progressive. This progressive nature is illustrated by
the increased use of supplements and drugs in athletics. Third, quackery
thrives on athletes who are driven to win at all costs. Athletic
quackery includes the list of supplements advertised in Muscular Development
and articles  prepared by sport nutrition experts. There
is no evidence to indicate that vitamin supplementation is needed for health,
much less for athletics. In fact, such supplements are a complete
waste of money. Anyone who would indicate a belief otherwise is passing
along scientific nonsense. Why athletes (and their parents) have
failed to see the “copper bracelet” mentality is not a new phenomenon.
History records the lack of critical thinking when it comes to improving
physical performance with supplements.
Each year the increase in money spent to
artificially enhance performance, if possible, increases in vast amounts.
Athletes have come to believe that supplements and/or drugs are necessary
if they are to compete successfully. Of course, it is not only plausible
but a reality that athletes who refuse to use supplements and/or drugs
are also winners. The sad thing is that many coaches, athletic trainers,
and exercise physiologists tell athletes something altogether different.
They say, “If you want to win, you must use supplements and drugs”.
They point the athletes to fancy looking web sites with the appearance
of scientific articles written by individuals who appear to be non-biased.
The basic problem is the continued reminder that if there is a way to get
around from hard work and a sense of what is right thinking, then anyone
with a cunning behavior and a willingness to violate ethical principles
is likely to find ways to validate their ignorance. Endless examples
of this type of desperation and gullibility exist throughout the marketing
of nutrition supplements .
Athletes therefore become victims of fear
that is hidden in quackery and superstition. Overuse of drugs and
over-prescription of supplements validates the lack of a sport philosophy.
The end result is that many athletes never learn to be suspicious or to
develop a healthy skepticism. Where is the evidence that the supplement
works? Instead, what they get is weasel words such as “may benefit”
or “may enhance recovery”. It only takes a minute to realize that
the entire supplement industry is driven by weasel words. Any reputable
scientist knows that such words are worthless. Similarly, testimonials
are worthless. They are little more than paid advertisements.
In almost every case, the claims are totally false or based solely on an
assume element of truth. Recommending fitness supplements with “secret
formulas, secret ingredients, or some secret method” that increases physical
performance is pure and simple unethical behavior. It bears a direct
relationship to diploma-printing mills. It is quackery and, logically,
quacks don’t like legitimate professionals. Quacks know that athletes
are always looking for the edge, that is, the secret ingredient to win.
And, worst of all, quacks don’t discriminate. They will search for
their victims, regardless of age (i.e., their advertisements do not discriminate
by age) Coleman  identifies several “warning signs” to avoid becoming
a victim of quackery. For example, nutrition quacks:
Athletes desperately yearn to win. Sports
supplements are the quick fix or cure to their assumed physical and psychological
problems. The reality of course is that the supplements are in fact
another form of quackery. The run-faster, jump higher, or get stronger
supplements are often times very elaborate and impressive, but they lack
value and credibility. The promotional material is almost exactly
the same as mechanical quackery of the past 100 years including, but not
limited to, the Magic Spike, the Spectro-Chrome, the Blender Queen, the
Relaxacisor, the Micro-Dynameter, the Pedasine, the Vibrator Pads, the
Respirator, the Vaporizer, the Diapulse, the E-Meter, the Detoxacolon,
the Zerrett Applicator, and many other mechanical devices .
Manipulate consumers by playing on their emotions
Create distrust in reputable professionals
to push unproven alternative supplements and/or drugs.
Claim that regular foods are incomplete in
nutrients and/or deficient in other ways that supposedly decreases human
Use personal testimonials and/or well-known
athletes to justify the use of supplements.
Today, there are still meaningless devices
that are said to heal diseases and so forth. Similarly, there are
meaningless sports supplements that are said to increase physical performance.
What is true is not always obvious. That is, the majority of the
claims used to market sports supplements is potentially useless.
Some of the claims are dangerous. Nutritional quackery is probably
the most prevalent form of quackery in the United States today. The
obvious problem is the lack of serious evidence to support the claims.
And, yet there is no shortage of athletes who are willing to be exploited
by so-called experts in the field who based their beliefs on several myths.
The popularity of sports supplements with
high school and college-aged athletes is increasing so fast that it is
almost too hard to believe. Everyone, including athletes, coaches,
trainers, and support staff, seems to think it is ethical and necessary
to use supplements. Winning is believed to be everything. It
doesn’t manner if the athlete prostitutes his or her morals. A quick
review of the fitness and strength development magazines demonstrates the
point . In the words of Sarah Short , “We need to push for
total nutrition education and soon. The nonprofessionals have already
surrounded us. Powerful forces out there are using nuclear weapons
against us while we are using smiling faces. Start somewhere.
Write one letter. Give one speech. Write to one newspaper.
We have knowledge, and knowledge is power. Every single one of us
must use that power.”
All athletes cannot consume a good diet.
The experts state without hesitation that it is essentially impossible
to consume an adequate diet without using supplements. Naturally,
therefore, all athletes should purchase sports supplements.
Eating foods that are depleted in various
ingredients cause poor athletic performance. The statement, however,
is not true. Clearly, the fact is that athletes have access to good
food and all kinds of foods. The idea that chemical and organic fertilizers
have reduced the value of foods is an argument for promoting supplements.
The same untrue argument is used with foods
that are frozen and/or over-processed. The claim is that processing,
even cooking, decreases the nutrient content or quality of foods.
The claims are overly exaggerated.
If recovery from exercise is seemingly too
long, the problem is that the athlete is suffering from a vitamin deficiency.
The claim is exaggerated and unproven.
It is surprising to think that drug testing
is considered the vehicle to curtail the widespread use of nutritional
supplements and/or drugs in athletics. Those involved in the testing
of athletes are diluting themselves to think the problem is only the consumption
of supplement products per se. Rather, the problem is the exploitation
of athletes to make money. It is all about money! Sport physicians,
coaches, exercise physiologists and, especially, the supplement industry
are aware of the retail sales of supplements. In 1999, it was estimated
that the annual sales of supplements products in the U.S. totaled $12 billion
. There is also the issue of the preoccupation with nutrition
supplements that takes away from the character building qualities of sports
training and athletic competition. The first-two sentences of a “sample
code for athletes” published by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport
this point: “I believe that the true essence of sport is to strive for
personal achievement and excellence through full and honest effort.
I am committed to participating in sport with integrity, and to striving
to win only by legitimate means.” 
“Because sport is complex and
competitive it constantly raises moral questions – should I do this or
that, is this right or wrong, is this acceptable or not – what is the right
thing to do in this or that circumstance. The answers to these questions
are the building blocks of individuals or collective character and integrity.
We, literally, become the people we are or the organizations we are through
the choices we make.” 
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5(2)1-14. [Online]. http://faculty.css.edu/tboone2/asep/ExercisePhysiologyQuackery.html
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Disagreement: A Call for a Dialogue About Values and Obligations of University
Teachers. Professionalization of Exercise Physiologonline. 6(8):1-16. [Online].
4. Muscular Development Magazine. (2000).
February 2000 Table of Contents. 37(2). [Online]. http://www.getbig.com/magazine/musdev/mdev0002.htm
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(1976). Health, Quackery & the Consumer. Philadelphia,
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D. (2003). Exercise Physiologists Should not Recommend the Use of Ephedrine
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Loss. Journal of Exercise Physiologyonline.
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8. Short, S.H. (1994). Health Quackery:
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9. Pipe, A. and Ayotte, C. (2002). Nutritional
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10. Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.
(1998). A Guide to Developing Codes of Conduct. 202-2197 promenade Riverside
Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1H7X3 Canada.
11. Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.
(1997). A Guide to Moral Decision Making in Sport. 202-2197 promenade Riverside
Drive, Ottawa, Ontario K1H7X3 Canada.