Tuesday 17 December 2013

Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, Team Sky, blood doping and biological passports

With Team Sky rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke facing an anti doping hearing, the biological passport system is going to be big news in the UK (though it should be noted that Sky stress the anomalous findings were all taken before he joined their team).

So I took a look back at all my blogs. The word “passport” arises 34 times. What does this mean in a sporting/doping context? The athlete biological passport aims to detect doping indirectly via looking at the variations in biological markers in blood or urine. The only current validated system in use is the “blood passport” that tests for blood boosting and EPO abuse. As it is clearly inappropriate to comment on an allegation under review, I thought I would instead link to all my previous blogs that mention the passport system; sort of a “greatest hits” of my writing on this system. Happy reading! 

Saturday 16 November 2013

University of Essex students talk about drugs in sport

I had my annual discussion with my final year sports & exercise science undergraduate class about the ethics of drugs in sport. Last year they surprised me with how much they thought elite athletes should be role models and not even dabble in recreational drugs (see [1]). Maybe this was a result of a 2012 post-Olympic glow because the class of 2013 included a number of more libertarian individuals who favoured a laissez faire “anything goes” policy. We had an interesting debate around what was the meaning of “natural” versus unnatural sport; kind of an Essex version of the differing philosophies of human enhancement pronounced by Michael Sandel or Julian Savelescu – see for example [2].

Some of the students suggested that the spectacle of sport itself was by definition enhanced if times were quicker and the distances thrown longer. I pointed out that it was all relative and maybe it mattered how you achieved your goals. I also noted that if it was only about absolute times, not relative performances, there was no point in watching women’s sport as they were always going to be slower than the men. I am not sure I won this debate (they were tough arguers!), though it was perhaps noticeable that the female students were more anti doping, on average, than the men (I think not surprising given the greater concerns over women’s health with steroid doping).

Anyway, as always, I was left with much food for thought after this session. Let’s hope they argue as well in their essays on the scientific future of doping I am about to mark!

[1]  Cooper, C. E. (2013) Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The science behind drugs in sport, OUP, Oxford.  Preface to the paperback edition

[2]  Savulescu, J., and Bostrom, N., (Eds.) (2009) Human Enhancement, Oxford University Press.   See introduction (Savulescu) and Chapter 4 (Sandel). 

Sunday 27 October 2013

Jodie Marsh, steroids and bodybuilding

The interview I did with Jodie Marsh – glamour model, turned reality TV star turned natural bodybuilder  – has finally turned up on TV. I am not sure how easy it is to find, but the TV channel is TLC. Here's the link to the program details: http://www.uk.tlc.com/shows/jodie-marsh-on-steroids/ Apparently TLC repeat their shows all the time so if you can access this channel you still might be able to catch it.

I don’t know how the show has been edited, but the director spent most of the interview trying to persuade Jodie to get me to say how dangerous steroids were to health (clearly the “angle” they were taking as she doesn’t take steroids herself). I stuck to the scientific line – the sex side effects (e.g. cliteromegaly for women and gynaecomastia for men) are, at least in part, somewhat manageable by careful regimens and taking additional drugs (e.g. tamoxifen). But the long-term adverse effects are much less easy to control, and potentially far more serious. These include adverse cardiovascular effects and liver cancer [1-3], and for women the sexual side effects may not be readily reversible. The problem is that, perhaps for obvious reasons, it is difficult to get the information to present careful long term follow up studies at the high doses of anabolic steroids bodybuilders use. So we don’t have good data, though what we have certainly does not suggest a sound safety profile.

Actually, bizarre as it was to be discussing enlarged clitorises and man-boobs with Jodie Marsh, she was a charming intelligent woman and much more interested in getting at the scientific truth than her director. The only pain in the interview was that the cameraman thought it was a good idea to have us standing together for the whole one hour pre-record. Normally given the size difference (see attached photo), I would have expected to be perched on a table so we could take face-to-face. Instead I loomed over and cricked my back. Still all for the sake of entertainment!


1. Hardt, A., Stippel, D., Odenthal, M., Holscher, A. H., Dienes, H. P., and Drebber, U. (2012)Development of hepatocellular carcinoma associated with anabolic androgenic steroid abuse in a young bodybuilder: a case report, Case Reports in Pathology 2012, 195607.

2.  Socas, L., Zumbado, M., Perez-Luzardo, O., Ramos, A., Perez, C., Hernandez, J. R., and Boada, L. D. (2005) Hepatocellular adenomas associated with anabolic androgenic steroid abuse in bodybuilders: a report of two cases and a review of the literature, British Journal of Sports Medicine 39, e27.

3. Angell, P., Chester, N., Green, D., Somauroo, J., Whyte, G., and George, K. (2012) Anabolic steroids and cardiovascular risk, Sports Med. 42, 119-134.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Eighteen Colchester soldiers banned for doping using ephedrine: what a waste

Today eighteen soldiers from my university’s local town, Colchester in Essex, have been suspended for taking ephedrine [1]. This is a drug that is banned in sport. Outside the sporting world it is also one of those “supplements” where there is an ongoing concern about its toxicity. I certainly wouldn’t take it, either for performance enhancement or, as it seems these soldiers have, for weight loss. Notwithstanding the health concerns, the evidence that ephedrine is genuinely performance enhancing or can reduce weight in the long term is rather weak [2].

Weight loss products are an accident waiting to happen for many people. Aside from the ephedra story, I am reminded of the death of a young boy from my old school in Hampton who took the pesticide dinitrophenol  (DNP) to improve his appearance [3]. DNP is a drug occasionally abused by bodybuilders.  However, even they are extremely wary of it, for its effective dose is just slightly less than the lowest dose that kills you. This drug makes you lose fat by stopping fat - or indeed any other foodstuff – giving you energy. It is so toxic that it was banned as a diet pill as long ago as the 1940s.

I talk about ephedrine and DNP in my book. But the book is written for the interested layperson. It sells well, but it is hardly a best seller. But people need to be aware of the information in it. This morning is one of those sad times when I feel I need to do much more to explain the science behind so-called ergogenic supplements.

[1]        Colchester Gazette, October 16, 2013  “18 soldiers suspended by Army after testing positive for performance enhancing drug ephedrine” 

[2]       Shekelle, P. G., Hardy, M. L., Morton, S. C., Maglione, M., Mojica, W. A., Suttorp, M. J., Rhodes, S. L., Jungvig, L., and Gagne, J. (2003) Efficacy and safety of ephedra and ephedrine for weight loss and athletic performance: a meta-analysis, JAMA 289, 1537-1545.  

[3]        BBC News, Sept 17, 2013 Chris Mapletoft parents 'shocked' over diet pills death.