Monday 22 October 2012

Did the Wall Street Journal get it wrong about blood doping?

A bit of a dramatic title, but I feel the need to cleanse myself and change topic after talking about Lance Armstrong to the media all day yet again (following UCI confirming the stripping of his Tour titles). So instead I would like to visit a review of my book in the Wall Street Times by Will Carroll ( Let me say at the start that this is the most critical review of my book, but I love it all the same. Most of my other reviews pretty much recap the book in an opinion-free way. It is nice that they like it (of course I am an author I love praise!), but I didn’t feel I heard the reviewer’s voice and opinions. But the Wall Street Journal review reads a lot more like the George Orwell’s book reviews. At the end of it you have leant a lot about Orwell’s opinions, had a great read, but might have forgotten that a book was actually being reviewed. Great stuff.

Still, boring biochemist that I am, I do have to make one point about the science in the review that is inaccurate. In the book I talk about Eero Mantyranta, the Finnish cross-country skier who had a genetic anomaly that “naturally” enhanced the number of his red blood cells. Carroll says that “Under current testing protocols, genetic anomalies such as Mr. Mantyranta would be singled out the way that Lance Armstrong has been”. This is not the case. As the USADA report on Armstrong shows, Armstrong had a low number of young red blood cells in a series of 2009 and 2009 blood tests. On its own this is not evidence of doping. But suspicion is aroused when you compare the samples taken during the Tour to those taken before when there were a lot more young red cells. This comparison to a person’s own blood samples is at the heart of the athlete biological passport; here it suggested a period of time when, according to Prof. Chris Gore in the report, Armstrong must have had a blood transfusion.

What then about Eero Mantyranta? He would have a constant number of red blood cells; high but not varying. So he would not have been “singled out” by the biological passport. Of course there is a separate decision as to whether it is “fair” to have someone with such a genetic advantage compete (and he would have had problems with the 50% hematocrit limit in some competitions). But he would not have been suspected of doping if his blood was analysed carefully under today’s system.  

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