Philosophy says…

Monday, July 28, 2008

Jacque Rogge has a new take on “if you build it, they will come”. If we test them, they will be found. The International Olympic Committee president was talking about the more than four thousand drug tests that will take place onsite in Beijing. The goal is to catch 30 – 40 athletes using performance enhancing drugs. It sounds like the local police and their speeding ticket quota.

Unfortunately, the more testing that occurs, the more sophisticated the cheating gets. EPO (erythropoietin) and HGH (human growth hormone) may be yesterday’s news. German television reported that one of their correspondents, posing as a swim team coach, was offered stem cell therapy. In lab studies, this treatment can make rats train forever and grow huge muscles. Human testing has been less than successful.

Regardless of which scientist superstar team wins the sub-plot of this year’s Olympics, the illegal drug manufacturers or the testing labs, it is philosophy that should be discussed. The decision as to what constitutes legal performance enhancement and what crosses that line has been based on medication ingestion, but what of other manipulations of the athlete’s bodies?

Shooting sports combine vision and a steady hand to hit the target. A common group of medications used for high blood pressure, heart disease and migraine headache prevention are on the banned list published by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Beta blocker medications like Inderal and Lopressor, block adrenalin receptors in the body, slow the heart rate and steady a shaky hand. It is often prescribed for speakers who have pre- presentation jitters. Imagine the benefit when trying to hit a target; definitely an unfair advantage. But what if you could improve your vision from 20/30 to 20/10, meaning that you could see at 20 feet what a regular person could see at 10. No problem with eye laser surgery and it seems to affect the performance equation. Perfect legally but has the spirit of the game been breached? Try bringing binoculars instead of having Lasik surgery; probably not allowed.

But archery and riflery aren’t front page news. For that you may want to head to the Bird’s Nest National Stadium in Beijing, home to track and field. Speed and endurance depend on muscles getting adequate oxygen to allow aerobic metabolism. Increase the number of red blood cells delivering oxygen and performance increases. There are a few ways of doing this. You could get a blood transfusion or EPO injections that will tell the bone marrow to make more red cells. Both methods, very illegal, continue to be used but with decreasing luck in beating the lab tests. However, if you move to high altitude, where there is less oxygen molecules in the air, your body will start to make more red blood cells. When you move to sea level, your body will have the benefit of the naturally produced extra red cells. There is a downside. Altitude limits the intensity that can be achieved when training. What if you could train at sea level but sleep at altitude? Very possible with tents that decrease the oxygen concentration and again red blood cell counts rise. The take home message: using technology to increase red cells is good while using drugs to achieve the same result is bad.

At the elite level, the difference between glory and being a footnote in history is often measured in hundredths of seconds. It is no wonder that the fame and fortune of an Olympic medal, winning the Tour de France or making an NFL roster tends to warp the sensibilities and the conscience of the athlete.

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