Sport dope cheaters are not winners

Drug cheats risk damage their health and their sport, but they may not even be getting any benefits victory-wise.

For instance, Essendon got busted by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) for a big long list of drugs (See pages 24–25 [PDF 167 KB]). Some of these were bordering on the homeopathic and some were just vitamin and mineral supplements—which are of dubious benefit as well.

But the one that’s caused the most controversy is AOD 9604, a peptide developed in the hope it would help with weight loss. Peptides are essentially small proteins: like proteins, they’re made out of chains of amino acids, but they’re generally too short to be considered a proper protein.

However, they can sometimes mimic parts of other proteins, and in some cases they’re what are known as secretogogues, in that they stimulate the secretion of growth hormones. These are then meant to do things like increase muscle mass, which is where you got the idea of weight loss—and the theory they improve athletic performance.

Bottles of the peptide AOD 9604, also known as Lipotropin
The banned peptide AOD 9604, aka Lipotropin (Image: ABC)

The trouble is that even if you took pure growth hormone itself it probably wouldn’t enhance performance—as shown in a systematic review of research involving 303 participants (Hau Liu, Bravata DM, Olkin I, Friedlander A, Liu V, Roberts B, Bendavid E, Saynina O, Salpeter SR, Garber & Hoffman AR, “Systematic review: the effects of growth hormone on athletic performance”, Annals of Internal Medicine 2008;148(10):747-758. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-148-10-200805200-00215).

Although it’s surprising that people would risk their careers over something that doesn’t benefit them, when looked at from a scientific point of view it shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, many drugs designed to treat a specific disease don’t work as well as theory says they should, so why should those used to enhance performance be any different?

But some of these drugs do work, and for evidence let’s turn to a proven “winner”: cyclist Lance Armstrong, who admitted to doping  and was subsequently stripped of his seven victories in the Tour de France.

The main drug Armstrong used was erythropoietin, or EPO, which is a protein that controls red blood cell production. The idea is that taking it increases the number of red blood cells, which increases the amount of oxygen your system can carry.

And the research stacks up. A study published in February last year which found that it improved running performance by athletes by 6%. Even 4 weeks afterwards, their performance was still 3% better than normal (Durussel J, Daskalaki E, Anderson M, Chatterji T, Wondimu DH, Padmanabhan N, Patel RK, McClure JD, Pitsiladis YP, “Haemoglobin mass and running time trial performance after recombinant human erythropoietin administration in trained men”, PLOS One, Published: February 13, 2013, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0056151).

Graph of Tour de France winner times from 1980 to 2013
Further evidence of the benefits of doping? Winning times for the Tour de France increased slightly after the doping scandals emerged (Lance Armstrong’s “victories” are shown in green) (Data: Wikipedia)

After testing tightened up, Armstrong and his cronies avoided getting caught by instead using transfusions of their own concentrated red blood cells, to basically get the same benefit as taking EPO.

Naturally, that’s harder to detect, but now there’s more monitoring of riders’ physiology—what they call a “biological passport”—to see whether there are suspicious changes.

But where these get into grey areas is that it’s also possible to increase the concentration of red blood cells—and even EPO—through “natural” means, like altitude training (McLean BD, Buttifant D, Gore CJ, White K, Liess C & Kemp J, “Physiological and performance responses to a pre-season altitude training camp in elite team sport athletes”, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2013, 8, 391-399 [PDF 257 KB]).

Even though that method wears off after a few days, and it’s not always practical to go back up and down a mountain to get it back, does it make a difference how you do it if it’s essentially the same physiological effect?

This puts the whole issue of doping into an even greyer area, but the question can also be turned around: why take possibly harmful drugs when there are other, more reliable ways to get the same result?

In more ways than one, the risk to a sporting career isn’t worth the benefit.

(This story went to air on 17 July 2014. You can listen to the podcast.)

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