The Darker Side of Sports
For every great champion athlete that we hear about in the news, we also hear about the other side of the sport—doping is the scourge of sports in the 21st century. It is a sad reflection on human nature, but if we put a big enough prize at the end, someone will learn to cheat to get it.
For aerobic sports, the most important factor to suc-cess is the amount of oxygen that can be delivered to the tissues. Athletes learned long ago that long-distance training would develop their cardiovascular systems so that they could increase their red blood cell carrying capacity. They also discovered that training at altitude would give them an advantage for performing at sea level. One reason is that high-altitude training increases the level of a natural hormone called erythropoietin that increases the level of red blood cells. With more red blood cells, more oxygen is delivered to the muscles so there can be more aerobic metabolism. All else being equal, the athlete that can go the fastest aerobically will win.
Unfortunately, athletes quickly learned to take advantage of other methods to increase aerobic capac-ity. One way is to inject erythropoietin (EPO) directly. EPO is a drug originally manufactured to help treat anemia, but now there is a black market for the drug for use in sports. This practice is dangerous because if too much EPO is used, the blood becomes too thick with cells for the heart to pump effectively. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, more than a dozen Dutch and Belgian cyclists died of sudden heart attacks just after EPO became available in Europe.
Sports authorities set out to find a way to stop the practice. The first step was to control the hematocrit, the percentage of red blood cells in the blood. Perhaps the biggest casualty of this test was the Italian cyclist Marco Pantani. Pantani was leading the 1999 Giro d’Italia when he was eliminated from the competition for having a hematocrit that was artificially high. His career and indeed his life never recovered. He sadly took his own life in 2006.
Nowadays other tests for EPO are based on the subtle differ-ences between EPO made in a human body naturally and that made via recombinant techniques in a laboratory. In the cycling world, a rider who is proven to have taken recombinant EPO receives a two-year suspension from competition for the first offense and a lifetime ban for the second offense.
An old-fashioned doping technique that is reviving its popular-ity is blood doping. In this technique an athlete either receives red blood cells from a donor or removes some of his or her own cells, regenerates new ones, and then puts the original cells back in. The latter technique is next to impossible to detect. However, if someone takes a blood transfusion, it is possible to spot multiple types of red blood cells in his or her system. After the 2004 Tour of Spain, American cyclist and Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton was found guilty of receiving such blood transfusions. He returned to competition in 2007 after serving a two-year suspension.