What doping scandal?
Recently there was a raid at the World Nordic Skiing Championships in Austria. You may have seen the video circulating online of the police walking into the hotel room where one of the skiers was caught in the act.
You may be asking yourself.. what has this got to do with triathlon? This raid has been the catalyst of a large number of arrests including athletes and a doctor. It has been released to the press by the investigators that hundreds of cases have taken place world wide but one of the places where blood was sent and where athletes took part in blood doping is Hawaii.
You can read about it here.
Now, that’s all the information that has been released at the moment but twitter is rife with speculation that this blood doping would have taken place at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
What is blood doping?
noun the injection of oxygenated blood into an athlete before an event in an (illegal) attempt to enhance athletic performance.
My (very basic) understanding of this is as follows: Our blood is made up of roughly 45% cells (or haematocrit) and 55% plasma (the fluid part). The red blood cells contained in the haematocrit carries the oxygen around our bodies from our lungs to our muscles. The more red blood cells we have the more oxygen that travel to our muscles. More oxygen means the better the muscles perform and the slower they get tired.. In other words increasing our red blood cells can increase our aerobic ability (vo2 max) and endurance.
Blood doping is when someone illegally and artificially increases the amount of red blood cells in their blood stream. The human body holds 8 pints of blood. In the most basic form (and what appeared to be happening with the skiers mentioned above) this is done by the athletes removing their own blood (about a pint), storing it for 3 to 4 weeks whilst the body naturally replenishes the amount of blood in their body back to normal levels then they put that old blood back in. The body now has 9 pints of blood instead of 8 and an extra pint’s worth of red blood cells to carry the oxygen.
If the athlete has more than usual blood = more then usual red blood cells = more oxygen getting to their muscles = better performance.
Ych a fi – that sounds pretty horrible to me. It can be dangerous too. If you increase the percentage of cells or haematocrit in the blood then you are decreasing the amount of plasma (liquid) which makes it harder for the blood to move through the body causing all sorts of problems including stroke or sudden death.
This isn’t the only way you can dope or cheat. Other examples include taking EPO, testosterone, steroids or even motor doping (hiding a motor on your bike)
How can blood doping be detected?
Blood doping can be detected by regular testing of the blood. This can be done by a simple finger prick. They then keep a record of the percentage of haematocrit v plasma in the blood.
If the percentage of haematocrit suddenly increases then this suggests that this has been artificially increased by blood doping.
Athletes can avoid their results showing the increase in haematocrit percentage by drinking a lot of water just before the test. This will increase the percentage of plasma temporarily until the athlete urinates the water back out. So it is very hard to prove, unless of course you are caught in the act with a bag of blood attached to you – which is what happened to the Skier.
Now I must admit that up until fairly recently I was pretty naive to the methods used by triathletes to gain an unfair advantage over their rivals. Of course I had heard the cycling and athletics stories but it didn’t really occur to me that triathletes would be at it too. Or at least not the ones I looked up to. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe it. Of course – who is doing what is all hearsay but it is fact that there are professional athletes competing today that have served bans for doping in the past. There are also a lot of rumours, hearsay and suspicions in the world of triathlon about certain athletes. This story has certainly not come as a surprise to most.
For me it has certainly taken a bit of a shine away from these big events such as Kona. I have stayed up (well tried to) late into the night for the past 2 years watching the athletes compete at an incredible level and I have dreamed of being able to perform at even half their ability. Now, it’ll certainly be crossing my mind “who is racing fairly? are they cheating? are they doping?”. I am really reluctant and very sad to think that way because it is not fair that if someone does well or exceeds expectations we immediately become suspicious but unfortunately this is something that we must accept is a part of our sport. I really hope that it is just a small minority that do it. I feel really bad for the clean athletes who are competing against these cheaters or are even having fingers pointed at them unfairly.
You might think to yourself this is all well and good – yes of course it is disappointing that some of the pros are cheating but this doesn’t affect my race.. It doesn’t affect my triathlon. Unfortunately this may not be the case. Doping or cheating is also prevalent in age-group triathlon. In 2018 the Ironman Age-Group World Champion received a four year doping ban and an American age grouper in the 60-64 age group received an 8 year ban.
The examples above weren’t blood doping (as far as we know) but the question is, if they were, how would we know? Age-groupers (all athletes who are not professionals) are only usually tested if they win. Which leads us on to the other question – how many age-groupers are out there that have not been tested who are cheating?
What’s going to happen next?
The big question is are we going to find out whether the Hawaii blood transfusions took place at the Kona World Champs and who the athletes were that received the blood?
If so, what is IRONMAN going to do about it? Other professionals have already been commenting on the matter and suggesting that they may be owed prize money should it transpire that people who finished ahead of them are cheating.
What’s important to note is that if the alleged individuals doping at Kona are identified they were not caught via IRONMAN testing. The evidence has all come about after a tip-off which led to the raid.
As for the age-groupers, do you think IRONMAN is doing enough by only testing the winners? Should more athletes be tested? I understand that it would have cost implications but lets be honest – IRONMAN charge enough for their events. The athletes deserve to know that they are doing something to try and make the event fairer.
Another suggestion would be to increase education about the risks involved both with the blood doping but also with the other methods of cheating.
I am aware that this blog has only scratched the surface on this topic but I thought it would be interesting to raise the subject and I would be interested to know what my fellow athletes make of this, especially my fellow age-groupers. Do you think this is something that affects us and should the race organisers be doing more to test and educate their athletes?
Special thank you to Dr Roger Cole who helped me with this blog.