Coffee, the drink or drug of Olympic champions?

“Coffee, It’s the lifeblood that fuels the dreams of champions!” ~ Mike Ditka

Coffee in the world of elite sports is a contentious topic. Doctors, health professionals, individual consumers — all have strong science-based positions on caffeine’s role in elite athletic performance. The most prominent voice in the is coffee a performance enhancing drug question is the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Up to 2004, WADA, whose regulations are adhered to by the International Olympic Committee, answered this question with a resounding “yes”.

WADA evaluates potential performance enhancing substances against three criteria; two of three of these criteria must be met for a substance to be banned. The three criteria are: proven performance enhancement, posing a significant health risk, and violating the spirit of sport (which is vague, open to interpretation, and inclusive of illegal recreational drugs). Up to 2004, caffeine was banned as a performance enhancer that violated the spirit of the sport, and this is where things got tricky. Science proves that caffeine increases an athlete’s alertness which in turn increases focus, reaction time, and precision but these caffeine-related increases are temporary and inconsistent between individual athletes with caffeine affecting some athletes significantly more than it affects others. Caffeine consumption also boosts physical (i.e., muscular) performance by increasing an athlete’s muscles’ access to fast energy. While caffeine does not increase strength or stamina the way most banned ergogenic compounds do, it does increase energy by encouraging the migration of reserve fat to the bloodstream and leaving more reserve sugar available for the muscle to convert to energy.

Understanding what coffee can do for the athlete is the easy part — science proved that coffee increases alertness and fat burn. The tricky part is determining what it will do, and when. Each athlete metabolizes caffeine at a unique rate, with some fully metabolizing caffeine in two hours and others taking sixteen to twenty-four hours. An athlete’s personal metabolic rate cannot be modified or predicted making it impossible to determine how long caffeine will remain in an athlete’s system. One athlete, Athlete A, may drink three cups of coffee in a twenty-four hour period and have the commutative caffeine fully metabolized by the time he/she is banned substance tested. Another athlete, Athlete B, could drink three identical cups of coffee at the same times as Athlete A and only metabolize 5% of the cumulative caffeine by the time of the banned substance test. To further complicate the tests, caffeine is a natural chemical produced by many foods, including chocolate and tea.

Advances in our understanding of caffeine led to WADA lifting the ban on coffee in 2004. In 2004, WADA determined that the effect of caffeine in coffee was nearly indistinguishable from other foods and that it did not meet at least two of three criteria required for being banned. In 2018, coffee’s performance enhancing qualities again came under review for performance enhancement and moved from the safe list to WADA’s watch list and the Olympic Committee’s monitoring list where it has remained since. As of today, elite athletes may compete penalty-free with twelve or less micrograms per milliliters of caffeine in their urine which means they can consume approximately six to eight eight to twelve ounce cups of coffee in the hours preceding competition.

Olympic coffee fun fact

The first Olympic athlete to be penalized for performance enhancing levels of coffee in his urine was the Mongolian judo star Bakhaavaa Buidaa at the 1972 games. Bakhaavaa’s penalty resulted in the loss of his silver medal.

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