Doping issues are murky issues

2013-11-23 00:00

SURPRISE, surprise, Lance Armstrong is back in the news. The disgraced cyclist has told the London Daily Mail that the president of UCI, Hein Verbruggen, conspired with him to cover up an incident in which Armstrong was fingered in a routine drug test for using a corticoid cream during the 2000 Tour de France.

Armstrong told the Daily Mail’s Matt Lawton: “The real problem was the sport was on life support after the drug-taking fiasco involving the Festina team in 1999. Hein just said: ‘This is a real problem for me. This is the knock-out punch for our sport so we’ve got to come up with something.’”

In the end, the Postal team of Armstrong fabricated a story in which they used a backdated prescription to “prove” that the cyclist required the banned cream for the legitimate treatment of saddle sores. Any scandal that might have erupted was stillborn.

Verbruggen said he could not have engineered a cover-up because all anti-doping in France at that time was “handled by the French ministry and the ministry had decided that Armstrong’s explanation of the presence of cortisone [ointment] was acceptable to them. It was not a UCI decision; there was nothing to cover up”.

In a text message to the Dutch television channel NOS, Verbruggen added: “Since when does one believe Lance Armstrong?” This, of course, will be the standard response of anyone accused by Armstrong, but we can be assured that the Armstrong story has plenty of legs. The official UCI investigation ordered by Brian Cookson, the newly elected president of the body that controls cycling, has not even started.

The doping practices of Armstrong and his team-mates were pretty straightforward. The only fresh revelations likely to emerge from the UCI inquiry will do little more than illustrate the extent to which its officials may have colluded with the dopers.

The World Anti Doping Agency (Wada), the organisation that effectively nailed Armstrong, has many trickier issues on its books. One of the most difficult is where to draw the line between practices that are regarded as legitimate and those that are not.

Take, for example, the case of Rafael Nadal, who has just completed a remarkable year following his seven-month withdrawal from tennis to treat his ailing knees. In an article published last month details were provided of his rehabilitation. Amongst a lot of hard work and standard therapy were some treatments that some in the world of sport might regard as borderline.

One such practice involved platelet-rich plasma therapy, which also goes under the name of blood spinning. This treatment involves the removal of blood from the body following which it is spun in a centrifuge, and subsequently infused round the affected areas of the body, which in Nadal’s case were the tendons of his knees.

Although this technique is currently legal, blood spinning was banned by Wada in 2011 on the grounds that its effect on the human growth hormone was causing concern in medical circles. In any event, it sounds remarkably similar to the reinfusion into cyclists of blood that had been stored in bags in readiness for those big occasions where an added amount of red blood cells was required to enable cyclists to push themselves beyond their natural limits.

International rugby players are known to fill themselves up with a couple of cans of Red Bull immediately prior to running onto the field, which goes some way to explaining the frenetic start to many of these matches. Andrew Flintoff made a habit of allowing himself to be photographed holding a can of Red Bull while sitting on pavilion balconies all over the world. The implication was clear. He depended on the caffeine-loaded drink for added energy.

Mo Farah, the British athlete from Somalia, makes no secret of his use of a couple of shots of espresso 20 minutes before a race. He describes being “pumped to the eyeballs with caffeine. My eyes feel as though they are about to burst out of their sockets.” This would explain his startled demeanour at the start of a race.

Like other stimulants, caffeine boosts alertness, but it also conserves glycogen, which gives an advantage to middle-distance athletes that has been measured at more than one percent. This can make all the difference between gold and silver medal performances, unless all the athletes are on the same muthi in which the argument is that the playing field is at least level.

The use by British athletes of hypoxic chambers before the London Olympics is now common knowledge. These tanks reduce oxygen in the air thus forcing the body to produce more red blood cells that provide the power to run, swim and cycle. In his book, The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton, a former team-mate of Armstrong, wrote of the “awful realisation” that his power resided in his blood rather than his legs despite all the training that he had done.

Is there an essential moral difference between increasing red blood cells by using hypoxic tanks and blood spinning rather than the EPO injections once used with apparent freedom in the Tour de France? It would require some highly skilled barristers to argue the point. Should caffeine be an illegal stimulant?

There is a thought that Wada should concentrate its attention on stimulants that do harm to the ingester rather than labour on about issues of moral turpitude where the lines are becoming increasingly fuzzy. The problem with such an approach is that it would not deter those seeking to obtain an illegal advantage. The ultimate downside of death has been no deterrent to those with eyes on the short term and big bucks.

Who knows if Nadal continued his form of blood spinning after the need to repair his knees was over? If so, has he been alone amongst tennis players receiving the advantage of a boost to his endurance? With millions of dollars at stake, the desire to obtain an artificial advantage is a difficult beast to tame. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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