The British rock band Queen believed that “Too much love will kill you”, in the world of science of athletes there is such as thing as “too much blood will kill you”. Both statements are a testament to excesses and its effects. Ever since the turn of the 20th century, athletes and their coaches have found ways to win titles and medals. Several had too much blood in their body that it cost them their lives. How and why? It all boils down to two words: Blood Doping.
You may have heard about blood doping in the news lately and how athletes use this to boost their athletic performance, especially now that Olympics season is in full blast.
Blood Doping is the method of increasing the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream so that it can carry more oxygen to the muscles. Red blood cells bring oxygen to the lungs and the muscles. When doing strenuous exercises, your muscles would require oxygen to do several sets of it. When your muscles get tired, it’s because your muscles are not getting enough oxygen and lactic acid builds up as the muscles contract. If your muscles are not getting enough oxygen, your body tires out easily. This is exactly why some coaches and their athletes resort to blood doping. The higher concentration of red blood cells will greatly improve their aerobic capacity and endurance.
A lot of Olympic sports require high endurance like cycling, distance running, power lifting, cross-country skiing and biathlon put a significant amount of stress on the athlete. In order for them to maintain stamina, they need steady supplies of oxygen found within red blood cells. No wonder blood doping is a recourse for athletes (a minority of them) who are desperate for an Olympic gold!
Types of doping:
1. Blood Transfusion. Red blood cells can be concentrated, frozen and thawed before transfusion.
2 types of blood transfusion.
- Homologous transfusion – a compatible donor is harvested of red blood cells which is transfused into the athlete’s body before the competition.
- Autologous transfusion – red blood cells in advance from the athlete is frozen and transfused back to the body before the event. “A few weeks before a race these guys take about 14 ounces of blood out of their body and then freeze it. After the blood is extracted, the body senses that it’s missing and produces more blood to replace it,” said Dr. Gary Wadler, M.D., former chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List Committee. “When it’s time to compete the body has replaced the missing blood, so then they put the blood that they extracted back into their body. They now have extra blood. Extra blood equals extra red blood cells,” he added.
However, both types of transfusion can be critical because of the risk of infection and the potential toxicity of improperly stored blood. You can contract threatening diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis and malaria through homologous transfusions while you can get septicemia, phlebitis and hyperviscosity syndrome through autologous transfusions.
2. EPO (erythropoietin). An advance in medicine in the late 1980s led to a new form of blood doping which involves the hormone erythropoietin or EPO. EPO stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. Normally, our blood is about 40-45% red blood cells, but when athletes inject this drug, EPO can increase the percentage to 50% or higher. But the use of EPO can be easy to detect during random drug-testing. Doctors look for an enormous increase in the ratio of red blood cells to the rest of the cells in the blood (such as white cells and plasma).
Both Blood transfusion and EPO have been banned by the International Olympics Committee (IOC).
Blood Doping in Sports
There are many cases of blood doping recorded in sports history since its inception, and most of which are cyclists.
Pat McDonough, an American cyclist, admitted to blood doping at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It was later revealed that one-third of the US cycling team did blood doping before the games. The team won nine medals.
Among the athletes who were caught in blood doping are: Swedish cyclist Niklas Axelsson, who tested positive for EPO in 2001 UCI Road World Championships in Lisbon; American cyclist Tyler Hamilton during the 2004 Olympics; German speed skater Claudia Pechstein, a five-gold Olympic gold medalist, who was banned for two years in 2009 for alleged blood doping; Bahraini track and field gold medalist Rashid Ramzi, Italian road bicycle racer Davide Rebellin, and German professional road racing cyclist Stefan Schumacher, who all tested positive for CERA, an advanced version of the blood-boosting drug EPO, during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As a result of their cheating, Ramzi was stripped of his gold medal for doping; Rebellin was banned for two years and was stripped of his silver medal; while Schumacher was suspended for two years, which was later reduced to some months.
Why is Blood Doping Banned?
The pressure to succeed and to bring glory to one’s country is the main reason why athletes have practiced blood doping. This has given athletes a competitive yet unfair advantage against their competitors in terms of endurance and stamina. And this fact rings a bell on dishonest play.
Blood doping started in the 1970s and many athletes whose sports require strength and endurance experimented on how to better their performance. But after blood doping had become popular, sport committees and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned the use of blood doping in any sporting event, along with other performance-enhancing drugs such as Anabolic Steroids, amphetamine, Beta-2-Agonists, Hormone Antagonists and Modulators and many more.
In an article published on New York Times, blood doping was finally outlawed by the United States Olympic Committee on June 1985 after finding out that some American athletes had engaged in blood doping before the 1984 London Olympic Games. The International Olympics Committee banned blood doping in 1986.
It is shameful to think that athletes only win because of some drugs or substances that greatly boost their athletic performance. What good is it to take home a medal or trophy won by dubious means?
The practice of blood doping not only run the risk of losing an athletes credibility and name but it also puts their health at high risk.
Side-Effects of Blood Doping
While blood doping has proven to boost athlete’s professional performance during competitions, there are effects to the athlete’s body.
Medications used to increase red blood cells will decrease liver function and lead to liver failure, pituitary problems and increases in cholesterol levels. Misuse of EPO increases the percentage of the red blood cells by 50%, as the blood ‘swells’ and thickens with red blood cells, and will result to death.
Life Threatening Side-Effects :
Increased blood viscosity (thickness of blood)
Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
Pulmonary embolism (blockage of the pulmonary artery)
Cerebrovascular accident (stroke)
Blood contamination (chances of contracting blood-borne diseases and getting sick from bacteria growing in improperly stored blood)
But sometimes, there is a far greater consequence to blood doping: death. This is what happened to Russian professional ice hockey winger Alexei Cherepanov. The 19 year-old collapsed on a bench during a Kontinental Hockey League game on October 13, 2008 and died soon after. Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee revealed that a chemical analysis of the athlete’s blood and urine samples proved that Cherepanov engaged in blood doping for several months before his death.
Blood doping may significantly improve performance but no one should ignore its repercussions. Clearly, this has bad effect to the health and it will even cost an athlete’s life.
Practical and Natural Endurance Training
Though some would frown at it, High Altitude Training is natural way coaches build athlete’s endurance and stamina. This is a natural way of increasing red blood cells in the body, because there are no drugs involved and athlete’s just have to train harder in high-altitude areas. Training in high-altitude places means rigorous training with less oxygen in the air. With less oxygen in the air, the body will produce more red blood cells in order for the body to cope. Many coaches have turned to this strategy as an alternative to the two blood doping styles mentioned above. Though many athletes and coaches have been practicing this technique for a long time now, high-altitude training still presents a number of drawbacks. Very high-altitude can cause headache, sluggish blood flow, cheyne-stokes respirations, moderate to severe altitude sickness, High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).
It is understandable that every athlete who competes for their country wants to bring home the gold. A medal means glory and honor for one’s nation, as well as the pride that marks them as one of the world’s finest men in sports. But when it comes to a point that athletes use performance-enhancing drugs to give them an edge over their competitors, can we still consider them as heroes when we know they cheat? Athletes who engage in performance-enhancing techniques, like blood doping, are not true-blue men of sports because they do not purely rely on their strength brought about by hard work and unwavering determination. With the series of blood doping news hitting world headlines, can we still expect a fair play from our respected athletes? Can we still look at sports with high regard just like before?
As an athlete, it is better to be revered as someone who plays clean and fair, and not as some cheating superhuman who breaks sports records by blood doping.
We hope that with the help of World Anti-Doping Agency and support from sports team, coaches and from the athletes themselves, the world will soon see honest competitions where competitors compete based on speed, strength and agility, and not because of some dirty technique like blood doping.
The Science of Blood Doping
What is Blood Doping?
Blood Doping in Sports – Athletes Cheating
Six athletes identified in Beijing doping cases
Alexei Cherepanov Was Blood Doping Before His Death
Questions & Answers on Blood Doping
WADA Prohibited Substances List
How High Altitude Triathlon Training Works
Dangers of High Altitude Triathlon Training
Blood Doping! All about it and how athletes do it.