Monday 30 July 2012

Can drug doping improve female swimming times at the London Olympics?

Those of you who read my book or this blog will know that I don’t do exposé; I am all about the science not the gossip. Anyway even if I wanted to I’m no journalist and have no inside information. Still I thought it worth responding to some of the more uninformed outrage at certain events at the Olympics regarding the recent performances of Ye Shiwen1

A young athlete with unusually outsized body features wins a gold medal and world record by a wide margin. This statement could be as true of Ian Thorpe1 in 1999 as Ye Shiwen1 in 2012. In fact Ye Shiwen1 has even been called the teenage torpedo, echoing Thorpe’s1 nickname of the Thorpedo. The statement could also be true of Usain Bolt’s1 unusual physical attributes (his heightand stride), although his really extraordinary times came a little later in life. A policy of keeping quiet in the absence of evidence would seem to be fair to all athletes from whatever country they originate.

China has a lot of people. It also has a lot of money, with the second largest GDP in the world. It has a regime that aims to closely control its population and views success at the Olympics as important for its international prestige. Frankly it would be astonishing if China didn’t dominate the medal table at the Olympics. I personally doubt they have yet got anywhere near sorting out a method to select really efficiently from this large gene pool; there may be more extraordinary athletes to come.

Be that as it may could swimmers go faster if they doped? Swimming is a strange sport for sports scientists used to treadmills and exercise bikes. The absence of artificial flumes in most laboratories, and the difficulty of monitoring athletes in the water, mean there is a much smaller research literature in swimming than in cycling or running. But it seems clear that for nearly all Olympic distances a combination of power and endurance is required. The East Germans showed that female swimmers, at least, benefitted from anabolic steroids. Athletes from other countries have tried EPO and other blood oxygen boosters. There is no reason to think these would not have some effect on enhancing performance. It is not the science we are debating here, but the ethics of “outing” people in the absence of evidence. I agree with Arne Lundqvist, chairman of the IOC’s medical commission in his statements that echo Wittgenstein’s famous phrase “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.

The athletes caught at the Olympics will be the subset of cheats who are not very good at hiding their handiwork. As stated by many people, surprise out-of-competition testing, currently monitored by individual countries, is the key to catching the clever cheats wherever their country of origin.

As for swimming itself, it seems that it may need to introduce an athlete biological passport, as much to protect the innocent as catch the guilty. However, there may be ethical problems given how young people are when they hit their peak. The passport needs time to work. Taking blood samples from all prospective 13-year old superstars may be problematic.

1  Please note that the mention of any athlete by name should not be taken to imply that I have any reason, or even suspicion, that they have ever been engaged in doping with performance enhancing drugs.

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