Former nine-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt has had his collection reduced to eight after his teammate on Jamaica’s 4 x 100 relay team tested positive for methylhexanamine, a performance-enhancing stimulant.
The International Olympic Committee re-tested samples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and positively detected methylhexanamine in Nesta Carter’s sample.
Methylhexanamine wasn’t always considered a performance-enhancing drug. When it was first produced by the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company in 1944, it was marketed as a nasal decongestant that was snorted through the nose. Its blood vessel-constricting effects, which were previously meant to reduce the amount of swelling and mucus that formed in the nose, also happen to help reduce an athlete’s susceptibility to fatigue, decrease appetite, and may also boost feelings of aggression and competition. (Cocaine, for one, also falls into this category.) It wasn’t long before athletes, seeking an extra boost, took note of its effects.
Unsurprisingly, stimulation by methylhexanamine — which also involves a rapid heartbeat, tightness in the chest, nausea, and high blood pressure — isn’t exactly safe (all the more alarming, then, that the drug’s branding as a nasal decongestant lasted in the U.S. until 1983). In 2004, the WADA recognized it as a stimulant and later, in 2011, it was reclassified as a “specified substance” — that is, those athletes are more likely to get away with using because they’ve got pseudo-legitimate, non-doping uses, like clearing up sinuses.
There’s not much doubt that an athlete who tests positive for methylhexanamine during the Olympics took the drug for any reason but to enhance performance (cold medicines these days use pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine): The Syrian hurdler Ghfran Almouhamad was disqualified during pre-competition in 2012 after he was caught doping with the drug, as was Trinidad and Tobago’s Semoy Hackett, a rising sprinter, during the 2012 Division 1 track and field championships.
By taking the drug, athletes — and dieters who ingest it in illegal supplements — gamble dangerously with their health. Because its major effect on the body is constricting blood vessels, it can lead to strokes and heart attacks, as unfortunate victims of methylhexanamine-laced dietary supplements have discovered. A report by the FDA in 2012 linked ingestion of the drug with “cardiac disorders, nervous system disorders, psychiatric disorders, and death.”
Fortunately (or unfortunately) for Carter, the most serious consequence of taking methylhexanamine was being stripped of a gold medal — and having to deal with a lifetime of disappointment from his teammate, Bolt. In an interview with the Guardian in 2016, Bolt said, “It’s heartbreaking because over the years you’ve worked hard to accumulate gold medals and work hard to be a champion – but it’s just one of those things.”