Monday 10 September 2012

Doping, drugs and cheating at the Paralympic Games

I finally have some time to blog after some happy times spent at the Paralympics; the highlights of what I saw being Sarah Storey at the velodrome, Hannah Cockroft and Shelley Long in the Olympic Stadium and, of course, Shiyun Pan the swimmer in possession of the amazing one armed butterfly stroke which made me forget that it was a Brit he was beating on the way to his world record.

So what are the similarities and differences in doping between the Olympics and Paralympics? Much is the same. Power and strength are key requirements for many Paralympians. So not surprising there were bans for users of steroids and human growth hormone [1]. Just as in the Olympics there were variations in the length of sentences. An athlete claiming that the green tea he took contained an unlabeled banned diuretic received a nine-month ban and missed the Games [2]. Yet someone who inadvertently took a banned substance in a nasal decongestant had a more limited three month ban; this finished a few days before the games [3] and she ended up winning a silver medal, coincidentally creating one of the moments of the games as the two British athletes fighting for the bronze medal in that event tried - and failed - to cross the line together to share the remaining medal [4].

So much, so similar. However, the two unfounded allegations of cheating that created media storms illustrated some of the differences between the two Games. Whilst the voices raised against the Olympic Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen focussed on biochemical enhancements, those against the Paralympic 200m runner Alan Oliveira related to his equipment. Allegations of “technological doping” seem more prevalent in the Paralympics where naturally equipment is a bigger issue for more athletes. The French though remained equal opportunity accusers of the “unfair” advantages conferred on Team GB and Paralympics GB by their bikes and wheelchairs of [5].

More seriously are concerns about classifications. In the Olympics suh arguments are rare; after all the only classes are those based on gender and weight. Weight is readily quantifiable and, fortunately, accusations of males competing as females are rare. However, in the Paralympics allegations of athletes trying to cheat the classifications are more widespread [6]. Concerns about the fact that other athletes have unfair advantages seem to have triggered a more laissez faire attitude to cheating. Take the practice of “boosting”. Some Paralympians with spinal injuries lack the ability to raise their blood pressure when they start to exercise. This can limit performance. Therefore this pressure is “boosted” by extreme action; for example breaking a toe or blocking a catheter [7]. Boosting is dangerous and consequently banned. However, in an anonymous questionnaire study up to 17% of disables male athletes admitted to trying this [8]. This value is much higher than would ever be the case for an equivalent study on drug use. It seem likely that disabled athletes, in part, feel that boosting is justified if they perceive that others in their classification have a blood pressure response they lack. Rather like Ben Johnson’s excuse that everyone was doping so it made no difference if he did.  

As many have noted with regards to Pistorius’s outburst, this level of conflict can all seen as a positive sign that the Paralympics have come of age as an elite sport. However, there is still one area that I think progress needs to be made. As long as the equipment needed to compete is expensive, many countries will be excluded from competing meaningfully; this includes many of the 25,000 people per year who become amputees as a result of land mines. Still perhaps it is a bit churlish to ask the Paralympics to being about world peace and economic regeneration as well as changing our attitudes to people with disabilities …..

Saturday 1 September 2012

Talking about sports doping and Lance Armstrong at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

(the picture on the right is of Alex Hynes playing in a beautiful church on the Royal Mile) 

Last Monday I had the honour of talking about “Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat” at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Although I have travelled to Edinburgh frequently to the Science Festival in spring or to various scientific conferences, this is the first time I have been in the festival in the summer since 1982 when I acted in a Hampton School production of Strindberg’s “The Father”. I portrayed a soldier and had 23 lines in total. The Scotsman newspaper was not impressed – it rated us 2/10. Undaunted the following year we renamed our company Hampton 20% Theatre! Anyway given this less than auspicious history, it was perhaps as well that I returned to the festival talk about science rather than act. After the talk I explored the fringe with my 17-year-old thespian daughter. We say five shows in eight hours; the rigour of fringing seemed to be the same as 30 years ago, though if anything the quality of the productions was better.

The talk seemed to go well  - I even managed not to mess up my red wine blood doping demonstration for once. As ever there were a lot of interesting questions. Again Lance Armstrong came up a few times. On my return the Essex Uni. Human Performance Unit Director Dave Parry reminded me of an interview with Michael Ashenden where the controversial 1999 EPO positive tests are discussed in a lot of detail. If you have the time it makes fascinating reading; at one stage it informs on a previous blog of mine that suggested that Armstrong might be better at doping than his rivals (maybe as he was less scared about being caught?).

Anyway the article in full can be found here: