Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Bloody Olympics: Rio, 2016, and the history of illegal blood doping

The below is a reprint of a bog I wrote for Oxford University Press to coincide with the Olympics. Nothing new really, but it was nice to put things in a historical context. To see the original story (with pictures) go to

Throughout history blood has been imbued with magical properties. Drinking blood was viewed as a source of power for many mythical beasts centuries before the invention of the modern vampire myth. In Greek mythology Odysseus can revive the dead by giving them blood to drink. But all blood is not the same – the blood from the veins on the left side of the snake-headed Gorgon Medusa is deadly, that from the right side is life-giving. In 1489 the Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino, proposed that drinking the blood of healthy young men could rejuvenate the sick and elderly. Indeed it seems that an attempt was made to cure Pope Innocent VIII of his stroke by giving him blood from three ten year old boys. More dramatically the Hungarian princess and serial killer, Countess Elizabeth of Bathory, was alleged to have drained all the blood from over 600 young girls to feed her restorative blood baths.

Drinking fresh blood was supposed to give you strength, maybe eternal life if you were a vampire. Even in the post-enlightenment age, the first blood transfusions had nothing to do with the modern notion of enhancing oxygen supply; instead they were supposed to heal by replacing old bad blood with strong healthy animal blood.

Sport has long had a fascination with blood. The blood of the Roman gladiators, moppped by a sponge from the arena, fed a profitable business; perhaps the athlete’s ultimate commitment to promoting their brand? Today blood is even more relevant to sport. Indeed arguably its use and abuse in sport today has come close to destroying the Olympic movement.

The modern fascination with blood in the Olympics arose from the new discipline of sports science in the 1960s and 1970s.  A key driver was the 1968 Mexico City Olympics where physiologists recognized the difficulty of getting sufficient oxygen to tissue in the rarefied 2km high air. Red blood cells transfusions increase the amount of oxygen given to people suffering from trauma or anaemia. It was therefore argued that healthy athletes could be given “excess” blood to increase their ability to deliver oxygen to tissue, and hence enhance their performance in endurance sport?

Scandinavian scientists were first to prove this - in 1972, Bj√∂rn Ekblom at the Institute of Physiology of Performance in Stockholm, showed a 25% increase in stamina after a transfusion. It was subsequently alleged that Scandinavian athletes were putting this laboratory method into practice. Lasse Viren won double gold medals on the track in 5,000m and 10,000m at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. Unproven allegations of blood doping dogged Viren, who always denied them claiming that altitude training and “reindeer milk” were the keys to his enhanced performance. Some of his teammates did later confess to blood doping, however, most notably Kaarlo Maaninka at the 1980 Olympics. Maaninka received no sanction, which might surprise today’s readers given that blood doping is one of the main reasons we will not see the Russian track and field team competing at these Olympics. However, although in the 1970s and 1980s blood doping was viewed as morally dubious, it did not break any rules. The anti doping effort of the time focussed more on amphetamines and anaboloic steroids.

This would change in the 1980s. The LA Olympics in 1984 was the watershed event. There was extensive use of blood transfusions including by several members of the highly successful US cycling team. Again no rules were broken, but the IOC had had enough and banned blood doping in 1985. However, they had no way of testing for this form of cheating, so it presumably continued in secret. In fact the ready availability of genetically engineered EPO in the late 1990s, a difficult to detect drug that increases the number of red blood cells more gradually and naturally than a blood transfusion, undoubtedly increased the use of banned methods. I could fill most of the rest of this article with a list of Olympic athletes who are confirmed or strongly suspected of using EPO and/or blood transfusions to aid their performance.

So where are we now? Blood is a part of the Olympics and always will be. Whilst not imbuing you with the mythical life giving properties of Odysseus, optimizing your number of red blood cells is a key part of success in endurance events. I can guarantee that every medal winner in a long distance endurance event will have had their blood measured frequently by support scientists to conform the success of their training program, whether that program uses permitted (altitude training, sleeping in low oxygen tents) or banned (EPO, blood transfusion) methods.

So much for Rio, what about PyeongChang and the Winter Olympics? This is, if anything, an even richer source of stories than the summer games.  There are claims of athletes chosen for ski teams solely so that are the right blood group to donate blood to their team leader; in 2006 a disgraced ex Austrian ski coach crashed his car into a roadblock in the Italian alps, whilst attempting to escape the police. But that’s a blog for two years time ……..

Rio Olympics 2016 and doping stories

Most of the interest for me happened pre the Games of course and the "will they, won't they" allow Russia to compete saga. Not surprisingly during the games my TV and radio interviews weren't about science, but about athletes response to other athletes. The extent of finger pointing was unusual for the Olympics,  but less extreme than has happened at some other events e.g. Paula Radcliffe unfurling her "EPO cheats out" banner at the 2001 World Championship [1]. Still it was the Olympics so news outlets inevitably focussed on incidents such as the finger wagging between Yulia Efimova and Lilly King [2]. Until of course the light relief/black comedy provided by Ryan Lochte and his co-conspirators [3].

The main story in my opinion though was the IPC being brave enough to ban Russia completely from the Paralympics. The world didn't end and the ban was even upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.  This rather put the lie to the IOC's passing of the buck to the national sporting organisations with its ridiculous one week timescale and wilful misreading of the nature of the McLaren WADA report [3].

I didn't get asked much about the IPC decision  though I did try to bring the contrast with the IOC into some of my interviews. Still I am now really looking forward to the Paralympics. Not clean, but cleaner......