Nobody seemed terribly surprised when two North Korean athletes tested positive for performance enhancing drugs at the Olympics last week. By now, stories of disgraced athletes sound familiar almost to the point of tedium. But if you had the patience to read beyond the headlines, you might have noticed something unusual about this particular scandal—namely, the nature of the banned drug the athletes were using. That drug was propranolol, and the athletes using it were pistol shooters. Propranolol is not exactly a cutting-edge performance enhancer. If you are familiar with propranolol, it is probably because you (or your parents) take it for high blood pressure. Its value as a performance enhancer comes from its ability to mask the effects of anxiety, such as the tremor that might cause one’s hand to shake when aiming a pistol. That propranolol can improve athletic performance is clear, and not just for pistol shooters. Whether it ought to be banned is a more complicated question.
Propranolol comes from a class of drugs known as beta blockers, which lower blood pressure by blocking particular sympathetic nervous system receptors. These receptors also happen to be the ones that get activated in times of fear or anxiety, which is why beta blockers are useful as performance enhancers. A beta blocker can keep a person’s hands from trembling, his heart from pounding, and his forehead from beading up with sweat. It can also keep his voice from quavering, which is why shy people sometimes sneak a beta blocker before giving a big speech or a public presentation. Beta blockers do not directly affect a person’s mental state; taking a beta blocker before firing a pistol is not like taking a Valium, or tossing back a shot of Jack Daniels, because beta blockers do not alleviate anxiety so much as block the outward signs of anxiety. A pistol shooter on beta blockers will still be nervous, but his nervousness will be less likely to make his hand tremble.