The empire hates cheating and manipulation of honest trades or sports. There is an explosion of sports and athletic events and all that. So. They are very popular.

Sports in general include stuff like: racing on foot or on horses, gladiatorial style games, handball, other ball related sports, rowing, martial arts like our MMA or boxing...etc.

To that end at some point an office was made titled: The office of anti sports cheating and dishonest practices.

This means that they investigate stuff like betting and match fixing but also the medical aspect of the equation which I'm focusing on. I'm only interested in the medical aspect here but giving this for context

There is also another organization which is the doctors guild which would work as you expect. The purpose of mentioning this is to provide you with that fact that the setting has a great deal of standardization and scientific practices across the whole empire. This again should help you the limitation of the solution.

But the problem is that so far we are dealing with 1500-1550 technology.

That leads me to ask: Is there a scientific way for doctors of the time to detect the usage of drugs or similar substances that enhance athletes giving the effect of what we now call steroids...etc in athletes?

Please note I'm only asking for a possible, if it is possible, way for doctors to figure that out. Do not worry about the cost of testing, I will try to figure out the implantation of that into my world. It's like saying to a bunch of scientists make me a cure for this disease and let me worry about the costs. The world building elements for context and overall limitations

If that is not possible what is the next best scientific solution?

  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "steroids" in the context of "1500-1550 technology"? And what specific performance enhancing drugs do you have in mind at that technological level? As far as I can tell, the problem doesn't exist. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, Just general drugs or drinks or combinations of different herbs...etc that an athlete might use to get an edge over others. Something like Opioids for example. Wikipedia says: "Opioids are among the world's oldest known drugs. The earliest known evidence of Papaver somniferum in a human archaeological site dates to the Neolithic period around 5,700–5,500 BC" Not to mention that I remember hearing about something like combat cocktails given to certain soldiers in history. steroids themselves are new but this is just to make it clear to us. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ Right: an unknown drug. But you want to know how to detect it. (Basically, the only thing they did with blood, urine or sweat at that technological level was taste it and smell it. If the unknown drug makes the blood, urine or sweat smell in a particular way, or changes its taste, then it can be detected. This is how they diagnosed diabetes -- the urine tasted sweet.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Nov 27, 2020 at 23:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Drug detecting dog? $\endgroup$
    – Zjerzy
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 11:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Seallussus There are dogs that can detect drugs on the airports. Better yet there are dogs that can smell cancer in humans. If they can do that, there is also a possibility they can detect changes in human metabolism caused by using enhancement drugs. If you have found one such four-legged wonder you take it, breed it, preferably with similarly talented dogs and soon you have a new dog race that can guard integrity of sport events in the empire. $\endgroup$
    – Zjerzy
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 11:42

3 Answers 3


Is there a scientific way for doctors of the time to detect the usage of drugs or steroids...etc in athletes?

Do you know how a doctor of the time would spot diabetes in a patient? He would dip a finger in the patient's urine and then give it a sip. If it tasted sweet, there it was!

And that's it for the science part of the medicine of the time. The rest was a mix of philosophy, syllogisms and humors theory which had little to do with science.

Analytical chemistry was yet to come, and with it all the techniques to analyze the content of a sample.

Observation based medicine can do little. Yes, taking large amounts of synthetic testosterone shrinks the size of a man's testicle to the size of a peanut, but for many other dopants there are little or none of these observable side effects.

I guess the only way to prevent cheating, not to detect it afterwards, is to confine the athletes for a certain amount of time before the event and keep them under rigorous surveillance, so that there are few chances of them taking or being given anything "funny". Sort of what knights used to do before getting their knighthood, spending the night in wake, fastening, praying and purifying, the athletes would spend let's say one month with a controlled diet in a controlled environment, for the sake of getting "pure" before playing in the name of the king.

  • $\begingroup$ 1600s pharmacology also knew how to detect some illnesses based on the reaction of urine with certain chemicals - basically checking acidity or other contents. Add to that the 5 signs of inflammation (Calor, Dolor, Rubor, Tumor, functio lessa) and similar... $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 9:19

Feed them the same diet in controlled conditions

Detecting drug cheats is an arms race - new drugs are invented, taken, and then a test is developed later. The situation you're in has parallels to the modern world - there exist some drugs which have been invented which their corresponding test hasnt been.

In modern world, blood and urine samples are kept for years after an event waiting for tests to be developed to take the medals away from cheating athletes. Recently an Australian swimmer tested positive in an 8 year old sample. Unfortunately you're not likely to invent good drug detection tests in the next decade, so retrospective testing is out.

In some cases the drugs haven't been invented yet but there are hints that have found their way into common knowledge or witchcraft or alchemy or such: this plant helps you last longer in a sprint, this plant helps you gain muscles, etc. You dont know all you need to test for, and you dont know how to test.

So lock your athletes up in controlled situations for the 6 weeks before a competition. They are cooked meals by a common chef and drink the same water. They can exercise/train/practice as they want in areas supervised by officials and inaccessible from the outside world.

When the competition comes, all of them have had identical chemicals ingested for the previous 6 weeks, negating the ability to cheat with drugs. And if there was performance enhancing drugs in the food, now they all have it.


Most athletes are clean before competition time, unless they have sway with the competitions drug testing authorities, example Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson in the 1988 Olympics.

Ben Johnson had all the trademarks of a steroid and drug user, bulging red eyes and massive muscles but the reality is all competitors were on steroids and Carl Lewis had links to the testing company but only decades later the truth came out.

So just to be clear all professional athletes take performance drugs, If they dont have power to sway the testing they go clean six weeks before the competition and flush their system so nothing comes up.

As your question is taking place hundreds of years ago, sophisticated testing cannot take place but there is one way to spot a drug user and that is their cycles. Every drug has tolerance levels and after a month or more the effect wears off, if competitors were monitored throughout the year and there are noticeable dips in performance, muscle mass and mood changes in a set pattern then the athlete is taking drugs.

If the athlete only takes drugs for that event and it is an unusually good performance compared to their regular training performance, if this brings suspicion but cant be proved, then monitor the athlete over a few months, get them to repeat the event and see if over a longer period if they can sustain the high level performance. more than likely they will fake an injury or medical issue to avoid further testing but this is the most efficient way to test if someone is using performance enhancing drugs.


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