Wednesday 8 August 2012

Talking to the media about doping at the Olympics

Largely because of the furor about the Chinese swimmer, Ye Shewin, I have spent a lot of time in TV and radio studios recently. My book, Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat is really about the science of doping now and what could happen in the future. But of course I get asked a lot of more general questions as well. I thought I would indicate the most common queries and my usual response:

1            What drugs do athletes use and do they work?

I usually answer this with the unholy trinity: anabolic steroids for power events like sprinting, blood doping for endurance events and amphetamines (or similar) to prevent fatigue. If pressed I say that the strongest evidence for benefit is using blood doping (whether transfusions or EPO injections) and anabolic steroids, especially in female athletes.

2            How many athletes dope?

Always a tricky one: I first state the number that test positive (0.5 – 1%). Although this could be an overestimation, as testers target the more suspicious athletes, I think it is more likely to be an underestimation. I usually settle on somewhere between 1 and 10% have tried doping in their career at any time. Nice and vague. Of course this number varies dramatically between sport and country. But I do think it is not a majority and we need to recognize that.

3            Who is winning the war on doping?

I always say this is impossible to answer - how would we know if the dopers were using an undetectable compound? But it is likely the dopers and testers are on top at different times. Given the identity of all elite athletes is known – and their number is relatively small compared to all criminals in the world – if enough money and police intelligence was thrown at the problem it would make it very hard for the dopers to succeed routinely. But maybe this money is better spent on building a new hospital or improving our schools instead?

4            Are athletes gene doping?

Although theoretically possible, like most scientists I think it very unlikely this is successfully being used at present. There are likely more effective, and cheaper, ways to cheat anyway.

5            Why not stop spending all this money in an unwinnable anti doping war and let athletes do whatever they want to succeed?

I answer this, by saying, that we should be careful what we wish for. The best example is anabolic steroid use in female athletes. Unrestricted use led to the health problems we say in East German athletes. We may not like the look of the competition we create. If we allow steroid use under controlled medical supervision we may have healthier competition for those obeying the rules. But there will still be a few who want to go further. How can we check this without an effective anti doping regime? The same system needs to be in place, just working with a different set of goalposts.  

5            Why not have an Olympics competition for “normal” athletes and another for those using whatever they can to be the best that they can be?

This is an easy answer. Some of the methods tried in the “doping” games would involve illegal drugs. Many of the athletes would live shortened lives in the pursuit of victory. Which competition do you think Coca Cola or McDonalds would sponsor? Which would the BBC or US networks cover. This kind of question is philosophically valid to ask, but practically a waste of time to think about. It ain’t going to happen.

I will be talking about this, and more, including my demonstration of blood doping using red wine, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 27 (

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