At times during her two-year doping ban, South African 100 metres record holder Carina Horn’s depression plunged to such depths that she considered taking her own life. “I thought about getting in the car, drinking whatever and driving at 200kph,” she admitted.
Horn’s crime was to be lured into a glitzy, celebrity-endorsed, multi-billion pound sports supplement industry that promises so much, but has the capacity to ruin careers.
Forced to fly directly to South Africa from a competition in Switzerland due to visa issues, Horn had been without her usual arsenal of trusted supplements – legal dietary products that aid physical performance – which had remained at her training base in Austria.
Attempting to walk the precarious tightrope of maximising her physical potential while not straying into the realms of illegality, she bought some replacement supplements over the counter in South Africa. When two of those – including the startlingly-named Mutant Madness – turned out to be contaminated with illegal substances, Horn fell foul of doping regulations and had her world rocked overnight.
It was a familiar feeling for the GB men’s 4x100m team last week when they were formally stripped of their Olympic silver medal following CJ Ujah’s failed drugs test. While three of them – Richard Kilty, Zharnel Hughes and Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake – suffered the harshest punishment through no fault of their own, Ujah has been left fighting for his reputation and career.
Having not challenged the result of his positive test for two banned muscle-building substances, Ostarine and S-23, he instead sought to explain the offence while awaiting sanction.
Like Horn, Ujah said he “unknowingly consumed a contaminated supplement”. According to Kilty, Ujah told team-mates the supplement had not been batch-tested and therefore was not certified for use by Informed Sport, a standard that British Athletics insists athletes adhere to.
Although precise details will not emerge until Ujah’s case concludes and the authorities determine whether his contamination argument is valid, the overriding question is why Ujah felt the need to risk his livelihood by taking such supplements.
A 2001 study funded by the International Olympic Committee into 634 supplements from 13 different Western countries found 14.8 per cent contained prohibited substances not listed on the label. Yet despite athletes being solely responsible for everything in their body, regardless of how it got there, and all leading anti-doping organisations warning against supplement use, it is almost unheard of for an international-level athlete not to take a supplement of some form.
“We understand that supplement use is very common,” said UK Anti-Doping head of education Paul Moss. “It’s a multi-billion dollar industry with some really aggressive marketing campaigns around it. It’s there and it’s not going to stop.
“It’s really difficult when you have a supplement with the face of a global superstar sportsperson endorsing it and saying it has changed their life.”
Aware that telling athletes not to take supplements is a futile battle, authorities instead urge them to use organisations like Informed Sport to ensure substances are batch-tested and certified. For British athletes, it is a message regularly promoted, including in a 45-minute mandatory workshop before last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
“I can’t just go into a Holland & Barrett and pick up any protein shake off the shelf,” said Kilty. “You’ve got to follow the rules and that means checking all of your supplements. Preferably not taking supplements if you can, but we all do take supplements, but they are all on Informed Sport.”
One sprinter who competed at the Tokyo Games told Telegraph Sport that supplements are seen as “100 per cent legal performance enhancers” in a sport where medals are decided by miniscule margins.
Olympic and world 4x400m relay medalist Martyn Rooney explained: “You’re pushing your body to the limit so you need to support it as much as you can. You supplement with whatever you need to take on.
“It’s just trying to maximise your body without delving into banned substances. From an athlete’s point of view it’s a normal part of life and as long as you’re using Informed Sport it should be fine.”
The problem comes from a discrepancy in standards worldwide. While the 2001 study found an almost 15 per cent supplement contamination rate in Western countries, the risk in more developing countries might be far higher.
Brett Clothier, head of the Athletics Integrity Unit, said: “The reality is that in the majority of places around the world, athletes can’t get access to those reputable supplements so it becomes really risky. It’s really difficult to guarantee anything. That’s why our advice, as a general rule to all athletes, is not to take supplements.”
With a reduction in length of the mandatory four-year doping ban available if athletes can prove a failed test is due to inadvertent ingestion such as supplement contamination, Moss admits that does “at times mean defences are built on spurious attempts to show this when a deliberate doping offence has been made”.
However, of 90 worldwide athletics doping cases that have concluded since the start of 2020, only six have involved supplement contamination, of which three were successfully argued and resulted in shorter bans. Horn’s was one of them.
Analysis of the alarming 10 supplements (including nutritional aids, vitamins, painkillers and sleeping tablets) she was taking at the time of her failed test in 2019 found two were contaminated with the banned substances Ibutamoren and Ligandrol.
Horn also proved she had contacted the chief executive of the supplement company prior to purchase, who wrongly confirmed the products were safe for elite athletes.
“I’d done all my homework, spoken to my coach, and spoken to the CEO so I thought it was all good,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter how much research you do.”
Having concluded Horn had “by the very narrowest of margins” demonstrated the failed test was unintentional, the AIU banned her for two years.
While Ujah’s fate remains unknown, Horn is now free to return to competition after her suspension expired in September. Burned by her experience, she is ready to test the anti-doping agencies’ theories that you can win without additional aid.
“I now don’t feel comfortable taking any supplements,” she said. “I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
“This upcoming season, I’m not going to take anything at all – just Red Bull, Powerade and water. So I will 100 per cent see how much supplements actually help you.”