Editor’s note: The following passage is excerpted from Velo head writer Matthew Beaudin’s Lede VeloNote in the May 2014 issue of Velo magazine. To read the full story, as well as our Official Guide to the Giro d’Italia, pick up a copy at your local bookseller or bike shop, or download from the Apple iTunes store today.
They filled up their veins with the blood of relatives, just another bodily transaction before competition, just another advantage in an unfair sport and world.
American cyclists won nine total medals at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, with seven members taking supplemental blood, accounting for four of those medals. The last time the U.S. had won a medal in cycling at the Games was in 1912.
There is zero doubt that blood boosting contributed to the rise of the U.S. cycling program at that moment in time, though Connie Carpenter turned down the offers from coaches and won gold in the road race. One third of the team transfused the blood of other human beings into their arms.
It helped, and it wasn’t illegal then. Not yet. But was there a moral imperative saying that the act, the use of someone else’s red blood cells, or even one’s own, to transport oxygen at a higher level, was wrong? Can something feel wrong but not be wrong, per the letter of the anti-doping laws?
This a cyclical theme in sport, on the finest and most ragged of lines, the plane that divides winning and losing. Athletes have always sought advantages over one another, some overt, some tacit. The latest shadow method came to the fore during the Sochi Olympics in the form of xenon, an inert gas that, when inhaled over time, forces the body to produce more erythropoietin, more commonly known as EPO, thus increasing oxygen transport and creating a more efficient athlete. Think of it as more train cars filled with coal burning a hotter fire.
Xenon has been used as an anesthetic since the 1950s, and the Russian Olympic Committee has been pushing the gas on its endurance athletes for years, or at least three Olympics. It wasn’t illegal, and they weren’t shy about it.
Perhaps as a tangential result, the home nation swept the podium in the Olympic 50-kilometer cross-country skiing event. Vladimir Uiba, the leader of Russia’s Federal Biomedical Agency, alluded that athletes may have been using xenon gas but said it was not wrong to do so. “Xenon is not an illegal gas,” Uiba told Russian news agencies. “We have a principle not to use what is forbidden by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).”
A 2009 British study found that subjecting mice to a blend of 70 percent xenon and 30 percent oxygen doubled the mice’s EPO levels a day after; another in Shanghai indicated a raised protein level (Hif-1 alpha) that leads to increased EPO production stayed elevated for two days after treatment. Altitude tents, according to that study, saw an EPO bump that lasted only hours. All of this is not indicative of performance in humans, but on a basic level, the methodology is effective.
Injecting artificial EPO is, of course, illegal under World Anti-Doping Agency rules; but what about using a gas to elevate those levels that are naturally occurring, however minute the rise may be?
Read the full story in the May 2014 issue of Velo magazine.