More than a few interesting stories out there at the moment. Here are a few that I’ve run across.
Oldest Known Doper?
Long-time reader William Schart posted a link to this story in a comment on the previous post. Turns out an 80-year-old masters weightlifter named Don Ramos tested positive for steroids and will now serve a two year ban from competition. If this guy isn’t the oldest person ever sanctioned for doping, he’s in the ballpark.
Maybe he should have gotten a TUE from his physician. With all those late-night TV commercials touting the benefits of testosterone, surely this guy was just trying to keep his old virility. Yeah, that’s it. The doctor said it would restore his … ahem … energy. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Beating the Tests Naturally
Meanwhile, our hapless Mr. Ramos might wish he had this gene amongst his personal genome. According to a Gizmodo Australia article (drawing on this Daily Mail article), people who possess the gene UGT2B17 can pass the usual pee-in-the-cup tests that the anti-doping agencies use to detect steroids. That’s because the gene supposedly enables those blessed with its presence to test for a low testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E) ratio, regardless of whether they’ve used steroids or not.
Which just goes to show, testing for the presence of banned substances isn’t infallible. Even mother nature has figured out a a way to beat the vampires at their own game. Or, as Gizmodo Australia notes:
[I]n addition to the very slightest precautions being enough to skirt by the test, there’s a whole segment of people out there that can just take steroids and pass the most common steroid test in use.
I know, the authorities could just use the carbon isotope ratio tests and skip the T/E test entirely. That might be better at catching the dopers, but it costs a whole lot more money. And people like the IOC, who rake in literally billions in cold hard cash from the Olympics, don’t really want to catch the cheats. They only want to make it look like they do. Cue Alfred E. Neuman. What? Me cynical?
Gene Doping, Of A Sort?
For years, one of the bugaboos of the anti-doping authorities has been gene doping, or the manipulation of a person’s genes to enhance their athletic performances. One example that gets trotted out from time to time has been research on treatments for muscle-wasting diseases, which could modify a patient’s genes to produce more muscle tissue, effectively counteracting the disease. In the wake of stories of this sort, researchers have said they were contacted by a number of athletes who were volunteering to be testing guinea pigs. Healthy athletes, mind you. Athletes looking for an edge on their competitors. People who merely want to help pursue the advancement of science, don’cha’know.
And now, NPR tells us, one or more compounds in a new class of drugs called myostatin inhibitors may eventually receive FDA approval for the treatment of muscle-wasting diseases. Like EPO before it, this new type of drug could launch a whole new era of doping. Just as EPO enhanced the performance of endurance athletes by increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of their blood, this new type of drug could enhance the performance of athletes in sports where strength matters. As the article asks:
Will drugs that inhibit myostatin become the next EPO?
“It’s possible,” says [Carlon] Colker, the physician and bodybuilder. Athletes and bodybuilders are constantly looking to medical research for the next product that will give them an edge, he says. And once a new product is widely used, people start looking for the next new thing.
The doping arms race is a bit like a cartoon, Colker says. “Daffy Duck comes out with a slingshot. And then Bugs Bunny comes back with a bat. And then Daffy Duck goes off and comes back with a gun, and then Bugs Bunny goes off and comes back with a bazooka, and then Daffy Duck goes off and comes back with an Army tank,” he says. “It just keeps going and going and going.”
I’d say it’s pretty much of a sure thing that these drugs will start being used for doping even before they are officially on the market. Just as cyclists managed to get their hands on EPO when it was in clinical trials, athletes will find a way to get hold of this new drug in the same manner. And at least a few members of this current generation of athletes will become living test cases for how the drug performs on healthy people, and what side effects its abuse might cause.
The New York Times Sunday Magazine features a weekly column called “The Ethicist,” written by Chuck Klosterman. You might have heard of him. He’s written such books as “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” and “Fargo Rock City,” among others. This week’s column is titled There Are No Sound Moral Arguments Against Performance-Enhancing Drugs. Klosterman takes on a question about whether or not doping is moral and/or ethical. Most of his short response is well written, but at one point he goes off the rails. Klosterman says:
Though it’s difficult to explain why, we’ve collectively agreed it’s O.K. for an injured football player to take a shot of Toradol to help ignore an injury, but not a shot of testosterone to help that injury heal faster.
It’s the last part of the sentence where he goes wrong. If an athlete’s doctor could produce a legitimate reason for why testosterone would help an injury heal faster, the athlete (in most sports) could apply for a therapeutic use exemption to use the drug. Though I’m not fully conversant with the rules for the NFL, I suspect that there is some system in place for the granting of TUEs, as there is for the whole range of Olympic sports. Using testosterone or other steroids because you believe it can speed recovery, but without any doctor’s supervision or prescription, on the other hand, would be banned. So Klosterman is partly right.
And Then There’s Malcolm Gladwell
You know a subject has “arrived” when it gets the Malcolm Gladwell treatment. Think “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” just to name a couple of his books. Gladwell pens an article on The New Yorker’s web site riffing on the new book from David Epstein (The Sports Gene), in which he asks, “Why should an endurance athlete whose body naturally creates more blood cells than other people be treated differently than those who would artificially build up their red blood cell count?”
Good question. The answer, in part, boils down to biology and ethics. On the biology side, there is a Finnish family (who Gladwell refers to) that has a genetic mutation that results in a higher hematocrit than most people. And that gives them an advantage in endurance sports, like cross country skiing. Of course, we don’t get to choose our genetic “gifts.”
Gladwell posits that athletes like Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton looked at cycling with “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” In other words, “may the guy with the best doctors, scientists and drug connections win.”
Interestingly, the answer to Gladwell’s question dovetails nicely with what Chuck Klosterman writes in The Ethicist. According to Klosterman:
The motive is to create a world — or at least the illusion of a world — where everyone is playing the same game in the same way. P.E.D.’s are forbidden because that’s what our fabricated rules currently dictate. In real life, that’s a terrible, tautological argument. But in sports, arbitrary rules are necessary. The rules are absolutely everything, so the rules are enough.
Unlike our genetic makeup, we do get to choose whether or not to follow the rules of a sport. Yes, the rules are inherently arbitrary. While life may confer a certain genetic advantage on one person and not another, to play a sport is to agree to abide by the rules, no matter how capricious they may seem. If you don’t like the rules, then get them changed. In the meantime, suck it up. Gladwell notes:
Hamilton and Armstrong may simply be athletes who regard this kind of achievement as worthier than the gold medals of a man with the dumb luck to be born with a random genetic mutation.
Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. By their actions, they certainly seemed to endorse the idea of “do whatever it takes to win — including drugs.” Winning by cheating is just that, cheating. Breaking the rules for personal fame, glory and enrichment. Is that worthier of a gold medal than someone who had the good fortune to win the genetic lottery and then put in the hard work to excel? Not in my book.