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Faster, higher, stronger

Instead of a total ban on doping, should safe performance enhancers be allowed? Kumkum Dasgupta writes

india Updated: Aug 16, 2012 11:37 IST
Kumkum Dasgupta

The moment Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen struck gold in the 400 metres medley in the London Olympics, questions were raised about the ‘extra' help that she might have got, even though the 16-year-old swimmer had passed her mandatory drug tests.

The anti-doping exercise in London was one of the largest ever — over 1,000 staff and 150 scientists worked 24x7 at the World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratory in Essex that measured the size of seven tennis courts. However, many feel that no matter how hard the authorities try, it is impossible to stop doping. There are two reasons for it: first, the stakes are too high in sports today and this puts tremendous pressure on athletes to perform; and second, doping has become so sophisticated that it is difficult to catch erring sportsmen. For example, something like gene doping would be very difficult to detect, as it would require a muscle biopsy.

Last week, as the Olympic Games reached the last lap, Victor Conte, the convicted owner of BALCO Labs that was at the centre of a global steroid scandal, told The Times, "You have to put your hook and line in the water when the fish are biting and that was nine months ago. Is it easy to use drugs and benefit during (the) Olympics? Yes." He added: "Sixty per cent athletes in the Games are on drugs."

If you are unwilling to believe Conte, here's what Werner W Franke of the German Cancer Research Centre said at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin in July: "Manipulation of urine samples is still a widespread phenomenon." Speaking at a session on ‘How to build better athletes,' Franke, who has documented doping practices in the former German Democratic Republic, added that doping happens with the full blessings of governments and sports authorities, and everyone is forced to keep quiet because winning is equated with national pride.

So how pervasive is doping? "Some years ago a study found that 90% of athletes would dope if they were sure not to be caught; 50% would still dope if it would guarantee a win but kill them in five years," Julian Savulescu, a Romanian-Australian philosopher and bioethicist, and the Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, told HT. "Before the London Olympics, 100 athletes were ejected and it is common knowledge that in cycling, nearly all the top riders have been implicated in doping."

Savulescu says it's the "incompetent dopers or poorly resourced dopers who get caught". And, he holds a very contrarian view on how to control the menace and ensure a level-playing field for all: First, relax the ban on doping; allow performance enhancers in adults (not children) that satisfy three criteria: first, they should be safe enough and it should be judged relative to the risks of sport. "For example, American football can cause quadriplegia but medically supervised administration of steroids has nothing like that kind of risk. Blood doping could be allowed up to a level of 50% red blood cells in the blood. This is safe there is a cheap and reliable test to monitor it," says Savulescu.

Second, the drugs taken should be consistent with the spirit of the sport. For example, he says, beta blockers that are known to reduce tremors would compromise sports where the test is of the athlete's nerve, such as in archery, shooting and snooker. Third, the professor adds, the intervention should not dominate performance: for example, robotic limbs would remove the human element in running. But steroids, growth hormones and blood doping mimic natural processes.

"Doping should come out of the backyard and into the medical waiting room," says Savulescu emphatically. "It is doctors who should be given responsibility for the athlete's health and held accountable for it. We have the science to enhance performance safely — we should use it."

In fact, the professor adds, that throughout history, athletes have tried to use various substances to improve their performance. "Some doping agents like caffeine, which increases time to exhaustion by 10%, are now permitted but were banned earlier and athletes were even stripped off their medals," he adds.

Understandably, his views haven't had much success with the Establishment. "There is a huge investment in continuing the status quo. Their jobs are on the line. They have claimed that all the cheats are being detected. They can't be seen to be failing in that," he adds wryly.

KumKum Dasgupta attended the Euroscience Open Forum as part of the Robert Bosch Stiftung Fellowship Programme