A very informative video about blood doping can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/20517743
When David Walsh et al first began to doubt the Lance Armstrong fairytale one of the main protests issued by Armstrong believers is that why, after coming so close to death at the jaws of testicular cancer a few years previously, would anybody risk their health again by doping? Pumping your system full of artificial hormones, stimulants, steroids and drugs after going through the heavy handed treatment for cancer would only be the mark of a mad man and Armstrong, with his Livestrong charity and controlled persona was most definitely not that. Even Lance himself said his miracle wins were the results of hardwork and determination and that after testicular cancer he would never want to risk his body again.
This was of course all a lie. October 2012 saw the final crash of Lance Armstrong inc as he finally admitted in court to using doping programmes throughout all his Tour de France victories just as Walsh had accused him of initially. I’ve just finished reading ‘7 deadly sins’, David Walsh’s account of his 13 year campaign to expose Lance Armstrong for who he really was, taking the reader through the litigation battles, interviews, court appearances and obsessions, both Lance’s obsession to win at all costs and keep his name clear and Walsh’s obsession to prove otherwise. For me however whist the book emphasised exactly how much corruption has been going on during the last 20 odd years of pro cycling, it also left me reeling from the risks professional athletes will take with their bodies just to go that extra distance.
I understand that athletes on the world stage are some of the most competitive and determined people in existence, that’s how they get to where they are and become the best. However let’s put aside for the moment that dopers ruin races, ruin sport and can ruin lives with their empty gutless wins and concentrate on exactly what doping can do to a person’s body and how desperate somebody would have to be for glory to put themselves through the risks.
EPO, a favourite of Lance and his army of minions is a drug that increases the amount of red blood cells in the body. Some people do naturally have a high level of haematocrit blood cells, (haematocrit = amount of red blood cells in blood expressed as a percentage of total blood volume) however whilst the average is 45% for men and 40% for women, EPO can cause the user to reach very unnatural highs of well over 51%. The more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen you have reaching your muscles. This is a dream for any endurance racer as it means your muscles don’t tire as quickly and you can go harder, faster and be stronger than your opponents. However, an increase in red blood cells also causes your blood to thicken. We are each born with the level of red blood cells our body is capable of dealing with and by artificially increasing these levels the body and more importantly, your heart, is in an awkward position. It wants to keep going to do its job and keep you alive and all, but at the same time it’s going to struggle. Consequently EPO use can result in blood clots that lead to strokes and heart attacks. When young athletes seemingly in peak physical condition begin to drop down dead you get the impression that EPO may not be worth it.
Now before I continue I have to admit that I have a big problem with blood in a remaining conscious when I think about it too much kind of way. Although I can easily deal with someone actually bleeding profusely, writing this piece has taken me a few attempts and one near passing out. Understanding this you will see why the idea of blood transfusions, EPO’s clever sidekick blows my mind. As the testing for EPO came more prominent Lance et al had to devise a way to escape detection. Therefore they came up with an ingenious plan involving bags of blood and a fridge. Whilst on some downtime athletes could take EPO, up their haematocrit levels, but then extract it from their bodies. This super oxidised blood could then be stored away and brought out to transfuse back into the athletes body at a later point. To get that extra helping hand athletes were and still are willing to undergo this procedure.
There are so many different forms of doping, with new, so far undetected drugs being produced every day that I can’t go into them all in this one small article, however I read a comment today, in light of the Australian sporting world being rocked by doping scandals this week, that really it doesn’t matter if someone’s on drugs whilst playing sport. According to this one insightful commenter, sport is merely entertainment and so long as it’s a good show, it doesn’t matter if the playing field isn’t completely level. I’d like to remind him of that next time a young athlete drops down dead thanks to something they’ve taken to make our beautiful games more ‘entertaining’. That’s showbiz, kid.
Image from http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/20517743