Doping is not going away. It’s everywhere in sport and has been around for longer than most realize.
I find the dismissive wave of “everyone’s doing it,” both overly simplistic and entirely missing the point. There’s no proof that everyone is doping. It’s not that the unexamined life isn’t worth living; it’s that doping is something happening in plain sight and we’d see more of it if we just know what to look for. Before we move our arm in judgment, we should understand what doping is about from sporting, biological, psychological, and ethical standpoints.
Because the body of reliable knowledge on doping issues has always been fairly small and a subject matter few want to take on, ignorance and hearsay dominate most discussions of the topic. During my lifetime, there have been people in many sports complaining about doping, but because they were generally portrayed as disgruntled failures, or because journalists were too close to the power structures in various sports, the complaints of these canaries in their coal mines were easy to dismiss or suffered from a failure to have their allegations fully investigated.
I see some signs Affaire Armstrong may have changed that for some people. I wonder if A-Rod’s pending suspension will similarly open people’s eyes. I hope that people treat doping issues in their favorite sports with the same dedication or seriousness that they treat any inquiry into those sports, be it histories of great player or teams, or detailed analyses of the most storied games.
And I hope that people will either read Run Swim Throw Cheat or find similarly authoritative sources to further their understanding of doping.
Run Swim Throw Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport by Chris Cooper is a detailed survey of not only how the body’s biochemistry responds to sport and doping products, but doping history, ethical issues, as well as peeks into the potential doping future. Cooper is a biochemist with a lifelong interest, both personal and professional, in sport. Thankfully for cyclists, he spends very little time on delving into doping in bike racing, and much time looking at doping in track and field events. The reason for this seems entirely practical. It’s both where his passion lies and doping is easiest to “see,” thanks to the relative unimportance of both equipment technology and teams.
Cooper begins the book with a look at what he deems two of the most corrupt races ever. The first is the Men’s 100-Meter Final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Eight runners: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and eighth all were caught doping, though only the winner was busted at the Olympics. The second is the Women’s 1500-Meter Final at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. The first five finishers were all eventually popped for doping.
He then moves into a history of enhancement, starting with what he reports are the first known cases of substances being used specifically to improve athletic performance. It precedes the first Olympics of the modern era, precedes the first Olympics of the ancient era, going back almost three thousand years. And from there, he starts to move into what drugs do, what the limits of the human body are, what can be genetic and what can be trained, and what food, oxygen, and supplements can do. All of these are necessary investigations because they set the table for understanding how steroids, stimulants, and gene doping works.
There are many ideas that Cooper presents which are obvious but often overlooked. For example, what doping does is uses a chemical formulation to replicate what a human body can do with exercise or rest. Anabolic steroids replicate the effect one can get from lifting weights. Synthetic EPO replicates what the body does to adapt to high altitudes.
Many fear we’ll soon start to see specialized drugs that are made for human performance enhancement or there will be gene doping that will be impossible to detect. Cooper postulates that the costs and time involved make both unlikely. The second one, gene doping, is described by Cooper as being so complex that it’s hard to imagine that scientists would ever be able to figure it out, unless there was a very lucky accident. Gene doping appears to need not just one gene to change, but several, and very specifically, and as we don’t understand all the mechanisms involved, it would be hard to isolate the genes and then adjust them in the precise ratio to make them work as intended.
What is far more likely according to Cooper, and witnessed with designer steroids is people with knowledge of bio-chemistry and an interest in human performance comb through reports on clinical tests of drugs or speculate on how a drug that is approved for one use might have another, off-label use that enhances performance. They then take that knowledge to either procure or replicate the drug.
Blood-doping, once called blood-boosting, the extraction and later re-insertion of a person’s blood was going on in the 1980s under the supervision of sports doctors. Francesco Moser used it to set the hour record in 1984, though he claims that Jacques Anquetil utilized it in the 1960s, and several members of the 1984 US Olympic Cycling Team also used it. There certainly were dangers to the practice and limits to its benefits. So, when sports doctors learned of anti-anemia drugs like Procrit and Epogen, they often switched their athletes to those drugs. Easier to use, bigger performance boost, and potentially more dangerous side effects.
This spring, some cyclists were caught using GW501516, a drug that failed clinical trials. Even the risk of death did not scare away either the athletes, or the people who helped them acquire the drug.
These are big-picture issues. But the smaller foci issues are even more interesting. If you’ve followed doping stories, and heard people talk about how they can spot dopers based on changes in appearance or behavior, this book will help you understand what many of those doping “tells” are about. You’ll be able to spot them faster. The explanations of what body systems are engaged by various doping products will stay the same, no matter what drugs come out, so when doping gets even more sophisticated, you’ll have a basis for understanding why people are taking the drugs and what they’re hoping to effect.
There is a non-doping component to the book as well. In many respects, understanding doping is about understanding the body’s response to stimuli, be it from exercise or an injection. As such, I felt that I gained a greater understanding of what training effects mattered as well as what legal fuels (food, beverages, supplements), do for the body and why particular kinds of nutrition is important.
All of this makes for compelling, if slow, reading. Since I first finished the book I’ve been treating it as a reference work, going back to is when doping stories surface. Not all of the terms are easy to remember.
There’s one segment of the doping realm that I had hoped Cooper would address, but didn’t. That is long-term effects of doping. From what I’ve come across, there are fairly serious adverse effects to many of the drugs he covered. Anabolic steroid use leading to all sorts of problems, from changes in physical characteristics to changes in mental characteristics to cancer. Cortisone use leading to lifelong joint pain and autoimmune diseases. Human growth hormone leading to cancer. And on the “positive” side, I’ve heard it possible that judicious anabolic use can improve physical response to exertions for a lifetime, and there are stories about the right use of hgh leading to increased height. For me, looking at these long-term consequences should be part of any discussion of the science of drugs in sport.
For those who have gotten this far and still don’t think there’s much to doping, Cooper even has a chapter devoted to answering the question “What is cheating?” Appropriately, it is the penultimate section of the book, before he addresses catching dopers.
I started this piece by claiming that doping is everywhere. I understand that some people find that depressing. I believe the desire to cheat comes with some, perhaps most, perhaps all people in all human endeavors. There was a point in my life where I was under the impression that sports were an escape. I don’t think that anymore. Because sports are a human activity, cheaters will be there, as they are in all human activities. As such, dopers are inevitable. Sports can escape the mines or the office, but not humanity. I also think that as knowledge, equipment, and training practices trickle down from the elites, it is inevitable that doping at the top would become more sophisticated and that doping would make it’s way down to low-level amateur competitions–which it has done, and probably long before most realized.
Sadly, this book could be a guide. At the same time, I hope that readers will gain the knowledge necessary to have an informed discussion about doping in sport and also a basis for meaningful further investigation.