Thursday, 6 February 2014

Drug cheats and doping at the Sochi Winter Olympics


Another Olympics, another statement from International Olympic Committee that this time there will be the "most stringent anti-doping programme" ever [1]. Whilst technically true, the sophistication of the anti doping programme set up at the Games itself, does not prevent all doping at the Games nor, more importantly, what happens before the great event.

So what are the differences between doping at the Summer and Winter games? To some extent there is less variety of doping in the winter sports. There are very few raw power events (perhaps pushing the bobsleigh at the start being one of the exceptions). So anabolic steroid abuse is less likely to distort the results. Also there is a higher preponderance of activities in the winter games where - assuming a minimum level of brawn - skill and co-ordination are the deciding factor in winning medals. Again drugs might help, but they are unlikely to be a major distortion, at least not until “smart” drugs that improve mental ability start to live up to their hype [2]. Even sports where drug abuse might be expected, such as ice hockey, seem to have rather low levels of steroid abuse compared to similar sports [3].

Of course the authorities are not complacent. Their concerns over the recent discovery of a muscle growth factor being offered by Russian scientists to an undercover German journalist is proof of that [4]. Incidentally whilst it makes sense to ban growth factors I remain somewhat sceptical about their efficacy. And as for the claimed undetectability [4] that is really, as ever, mostly a factor of how good out-of-competition testing regimes are. What I am more concerned about is their safety. Here I am four square with WADA; it is personally and professionally immoral and unethical for a coach or scientist to offer a drug to an athlete that has never been tested on a human being, in even the most basic phase 1 clinical trial.

Still, in a sense these are all side shows. Because some winter sports do indeed have a history of drug abuse every bit as tainted as the East German athletes of the 1970s or the Tour de France of Lance Armstrong and his ilk. Step forward cross-country skiing. This is one of the most aerobic sports there is, and so subject to all the same EPO and blood doping abuses that figure in cycling. More oxygen in the blood translates to more gold in the medal. In fact there is an argument that blood doping and EPO became prevalent earlier in this sport than any other. The current drama relates to the Russian biathlete (shooting and skiing) team. Their European champion, Irina Starykh has just failed a drug test and been pulled from the team. Another Russian and a Lithuanian failed tests at the same time. This follows on from three other Russian biathletes testing positive for EPO in 2009.

But we should not dwell only on the misdemeanours of the host nation. Drug testers can now detect blood transfusions from a donor matched to the same main blood types (A, B, O). However, in the days before these tests there were persistent rumours of some European nations sending “ringers” to the Winter games; these would have been weaker members of teams specifically selected for elite competitions, not for their performance, but because they could double up as compatible blood donors for the “team leader”.

The most bizarre story concerns the Austrian ski team. To quote from my book [5]: “Equipment consistent with the use of blood transfusion was confiscated from the Austrian team at the winter Olympics of 2002 and 2006. In 2002 the Austrian ski federation’s defence was that that the needles, tubes and transfusion bags were needed so that they could withdraw blood and then expose it to a magnetic field and ultraviolet radiation prior to reinjecting into the body. This, it was claimed, was an effective cold prevention remedy in common use at many spas. The authorities were not impressed; the IOC banned the athlete’s coach, the Norwegian Walter Mayer, from attending the 2006 and 2010 Olympics.  The 2006 story was worthy of a Hollywood movie, or perhaps more appropriately a reality TV police show. The Austrian team were based in the quiet Italian mountain towns of San Sincario and Pragelato. Mayer was spotted, despite his ban. During a subsequent police raid on the team’s accommodation bags of used syringes were seen being thrown out of the window. Some athletes and coaches promptly fled. Meyer was caught when he crashed into a police roadblock in the Italian Alps. In 2007 six skiers were given lifetime bans from competing at the Olympic Games; in 2011 Mayer was sentenced to a fifteen month jail sentence for supplying banned substances.”

And the Finnish cross county ski team provided probably the greatest coup ever for the drug testing authorities. Again quoting from my book:

Six members of the Finnish ski team were found guilty of taking hydroxy ethyl starch (HES) at the 2001 World Championships. HES is a plasma volume expander that dilutes blood samples and hence allows someone to appear to have a lower number of red blood cells. This can mask EPO and other blood doping offences, but in particular it ducked a rule that had just been introduced forbidding someone from competing when their red cell number was too high. HES is not a medical pill that could be taken by mistake. Instead it is a fluid that needs to be intravenously injected. The Finnish skiers knew exactly what they were doing; what they didn’t know was that WADA had secretly introduced a test for HES. The positive results led to the International Ski Federation banning the skiers for two years”.

One final caveat. The Winter Olympics also have us the genetically enhanced man who was suspected of blood doping, but in fact turned out to be completely clean [5]:

“Eero Mantyranta, a Finnish cross-country skier who won golds in the 1960 and 1964 Winter Olympics was found to have abnormally high levels of the protein haemoglobin in his red blood cells. High haemoglobin levels allow athletes to carry more oxygen and are a benefit in endurance sport. Mantyranta, like all his family who were tested, achieved their high haemoglobin levels by having a genetic mutation in the protein in their body that responded to the hormone erythropoetin (EPO). At normal levels of EPO the effect on their body was as if they had much higher levels. A stronger EPO effect means more haemoglobin and therefore more oxygen to their cells.”

Enjoy the games!

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