Sunday, February 19

Tacky Anti-Doping Rules

This morning's Washington Post carried a thought-provoking article on performance-enhancement in sport by Slate's science and technology writer William Saletan. The general theme is the byzantine and often inexplicable rules that athletes have to consider when training and competing, but what distinguished it from other articles I have read were the specific examples provided.

The article explains that the World Anti-Doping Code "bans a substance or procedure if it meets any two of these criteria: 1) it endangers the athlete's health; 2) it 'enhances sport performance'; or 3) it 'violates the spirit of sport.'" That last category is the whatsit in the woodpile, particularly when it is invoked to condemn practices that enhance performance but do not endanger the athlete's health. Practices like using Human Growth Hormone, which, according to the article, has been vouched safe by "the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the American Association of Endocrinologists." Why, asks Saletan, should growth hormone be banned but not carbo-loading (eating lotsa potatoes, pasta, etc. before competition)? "Evidently growth hormone violates the spirit of sport, but stuffing yourself with steaks doesn't."

And, as Saleton wryly notes, "[t]hat's just the beginning of the confusion."

The "Prohibited List" tolerates performance-enhancing substances in your body if they are 'endogenous' rather that "exogenous." Endongenous, according to the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary, means "caused by factors within the body." Exogenous mean "not synthesized within the organism." That seems clear enough: You can use what's yours, not what's artificial. But four pages later, the list bans the use of "autologous" blood, which means "blood derived from the same individual." You can use what's yours, except when you can't.

The question of "what counts as artificial" is even more confusing:

Training at high altitude boosts your red blood-cell count; the code says that it would be absurd to ban this practice just because it enhances performance. Yet the International Olympic Committee bars athletes in Turin's Olympic Village from using hypobaric tents, which simulate high-altitude air, and WADA is debating whether to ban them worldwide. Athletes from flat countries say they need the tents to match the conditioning of athletes from mountainous countries. . . . [But WADA Chairman Richard] Pound rejects the tents as "artificial" and "tacky."

I hate to break family rank, Uncle Dick, but "tackiness" is not one of the three criteria for banning a practice; and if "artificiality" is a no-no, then why can athletes compete in wind and water resistant man-made materials? or receive funding to train full-time, year round? or take highly processed vitamin supplements not found in nature, at least not in handy pill form? None of these are "natural" conditions.

These are just a couple of the inconsistencies and confusions described in the article, which I recommend reading in full. I'm pretty fundamentalist when it comes to opposing doping in sport, but this article made me a little more aware of the controversies at the margins of "performance enhancement" and the near-impossibility of keeping the rules both up-to-date with changing technology and rooted in common sense.

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