What exactly is athletic doping, anyway?

In this Smithsonian Mag piece, some background on the "high-tech, high-stakes competition between Olympic athletes who use banned substances and drug testers out to catch them." Helpful context for those seeking to understand the science behind today's news on a doping scandal specific to a certain cycling hero and cancer advocate. (via @alicialane)


  1. Performance enhancement isn’t only about banned substances; one of the things that can be done is reinjection of one’s own blood. That was undetectable during the Armstrong golden era (and indeed is still, apparently):

    “autologous blood transfusion: drawing your own blood and reinjecting it later. As part of that step you can theoretically spin down your blood to fractionate the red blood cells and reinject those, effectively raising your hematocrit level without the need for any hormones. There currently exists no specific test for autologous blood transfusions, although the wikipedia article states that one is currently under development.”(thanks to the painkiller on Mefi)

    In this light, it is interesting that Armstrong specifically stated that he never doped rather than never cheated.

    1.  My friend is an ex-racer and was telling me about that process a ways back.  F’n freaky.

    2. As part of that step you can theoretically spin down your blood to fractionate the red blood cells and reinject those, effectively raising your hematocrit level without the need for any hormones.

      There”s nothing theoretical about it. It’s been a normal procedure for patients preparing for major surgery for several decades. Blood is almost always given as PRBCs (packed red blood cells).

      I can’t even see why it would be illegal. It’s like making it illegal to train at altitude because it increases your efficiency of oxygenation.

      1. When the RBC count got too high, in past Tour de France races, the blood apparently got so dense athletes had to be awakened at night to ensure they didn’t die in their sleep. Also, apparently sometimes the blood preparations injected weren’t in the best of shape; this was excused as “flu.”

        It is also *possible*, though I’ve never heard a word confirming it, that Floyd got in trouble with the testosterone marker during his Tour because, after a frustrating day, they injected autologous blood collected months before while he happened to be messing with testosterone.

    3. Wasn’t there word also of a long-term masseuse or something who was fired years ago after seeing testosterone-related packaging in Lance Armstrong’s kit? I can’t remember where I saw this. Probably Der Spiegel, but possibly even in the back pages of Johan Bruyneel’s autobiography (though that seems unlikely).

  2. Just create two categories of competitions, one for people who volunteer to be closely monitored up to the event and one for people who are free to do whatever the heck they want.  They can give out a gold syringe as a prize.

  3. Who advocates cancer?

    I mean, having cancer was a very important learning experience for me, and I’m glad I went through it but I wouldn’t really advocate it for others.

  4. “Doping” is an arbitrary set of rules. We’re tired of listening to people complain. Go race the bikes, and quit whining.

  5. I recently gave up my daily coffee so I could go back to using caffeine solely as a recreational drug, rather than being compelled solely to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

    Now when I drink caffeine I my performance and endurance are improved above their baseline. Are athletes tested for sweat tea?

  6. I imagine at some point in the near future the Olympics (as they are now) are going to struggle to remain relevant in the face of overwhelming tech advances. Probably after the first generation of Gattaca babies come of age.

    1. I, for one, eagerly await the day when horrible transhuman freaks overrun the Olympics.

      I would actually watch if there were hideous tick-men winning the sprint events in a single jump, and swimmers who were 30% dolphin snorting derisively through their blowholes at the weak humans who dared compete with them…

      1. I’m in. The Olympics would be a lot more fun if there were surgically enhanced pro wrestlers on battle drugs.

  7. The article’s discussion of the history of “doping” is interesting, but it left me wondering exactly what is the ethical objection to performance-enhancing drugs? I suspect it’s based on the same general anti-drug ideology that gave us the drug war, and we all know how well that’s working out. It just seems like a huge use of resources and invasion of privacy (and the creation of a huge bureaucracy with a vested interest in perpetuating itself), and I’m not sure what for. I suspect that this is going to be like file sharing in that the dopers are always going to be one step ahead of the authorities.

    And BTW, why the hell are they testing for pot?

    1. “And BTW, why the hell are they testing for pot?”

      uh, GATEWAY. duh

      I knew a guy who took a “toke” at a party and the next day he was injecting EPO and growth hormones between his meth and heroin fixes, when he wasn’t smoking dope. Also he got AIDS off the joint at the party, and his dick fell off, whole thing not like Lance.

      1. That’s nothing. I heard this one time that this friend of my friend smoked a bong hit and got munchies so bad he had to eat 10000 calories a day for years. He tried to pretend it had to do with “Olympic training” or “swimming” or “being the most decorated Olympian ever,” but I think we all know what’s going on.

      2. You can only get AIDS from a gay joint though.

        (continuing the humour with a political cross reference btw, nobody likes explaining jokes but I really wouldn’t want anyone to take that as a serious statement.)

    2. I think they regulate against it so that professional sports events aren’t steroid fueled drug frenzies.  It’s sensible policy that enables sportsmen to NOT take drugs – as if there were no regulation they’d all have to.

      You could argue that Pot could help some sports.  I don’t know if that argument would hold any weight, obviously not for sprinting (lol) but maybe some of the more sedate sports.  Who knows?

    3. Anabolic steroids can have deleterious effects on one’s health. Shrunken testicles, “’roid rage,” etc. You’ve heard about all that. It’s understandable that athletes who don’t wish to cause themselves long-term systemic damage should be able to compete on a level playing field (as it were.) Otherwise the marathon winner is always going to be the guy who can survive the highest dose of methamphetamine and painkillers without having a heart attack.

      (This doesn’t explain the prohibitions on pot or the reinjected blood thing mentioned above.)

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