The Running Doctor: Blood doping at the olympics
The 2018 Winter Olympics will begin Feb. 9 and end Feb. 25.
The International Olympic Committee has banned Russian athletes from the Pyeongchang Winter games, but its “clean” athletes will be allowed to compete under the name “Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR).”
The Olympic Committee is now requiring athletes to pass drug tests to prove they are clean, as it was questionable with the Russian teams during a doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Games. During experience with the Medical Advisory Committee in the 1984 Olympic Marathon Trials, there were rumors that one of the athletes was doping.
During those times, it was difficult to detect, although the top finishers were ushered to the medical tent, for urine samples for testing for drugs. The process of blood doping (also called blood boosting) is performed by withdrawing an athlete’s blood and holding it for seven to ten weeks prior to a major competition.
A few days before a major meet, the packed red cells are taken from storage and put back into the athlete’s circulatory system—a process called “re-infusion.” Although results can vary with the test procedure used, a sudden jump in the hematocrit level is shown. With these extra cells, the athlete can carry more oxygen in the blood. This is a very controversial procedure, as its ethicality and legality are debated throughout the sports world.
From a medical standpoint, an athlete’s ability to perform aerobically depends on the amount of oxygen he can transport to his muscles. The idea behind blood doping is to raise the amount of oxygen reaching the muscles by packing more red blood cells into the circulatory system.
Many researchers feel that blood doping improves performance, but may be effective only in highly trained athletes. There may be medical, legal and ethical problems related to the practical application of blood doping. The technique of withdrawal, storage and infusion must be done under strict medical supervision.
The question of legality would depend upon the rules of the governing body involved, particularly the medical commission of the International Olympic Committee. This technique has been questioned recently in world class biking events.
As previously mentioned, it is extremely difficult to detect the blood doping technique. The question is of a moral and philosophical nature. Does blood doping provide an unfair advantage, subject to discouragement on the grounds of fair play and sportsmanship?
The research shows that blood doping may increase endurance performance in sports that are dependent on sustained high levels of oxygen. Its place in the sports world should be determined by medical rules governing bodies of athletic associations throughout the world.
Dr. Robert F. Weiss, a sports podiatrist, was a member of the Medical Advisory Committee of the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials.
Weiss is a veteran of 35 Marathon & has a practice in Darien; affiliated with Stamford Hospital and member of Stamford Health Medical Group-Foot & Ankle. For info visit his Web site at www.stamford
healthmedicalgroup.org, and find a Physician-Dr. Robert F. Weiss.