Sport //

Two strikes and you’re out

There’s a vast grey area surrounding bans on performance enhancing drugs. Arghya Gupta looks into the controversial policies our athletes must abide by

Belarus’s Nadzeya Ostapchuk was stripped of the shot put gold medal she won in London, after failing a doping test. Source: Getty Images
Belarus’s Nadzeya Ostapchuk was stripped of the shot put gold medal she won in London, after failing a doping test. Source: Getty Images

The plethora of gold medallists in the Olympics were great to watch – both in their performances and afterwards, but that did not seem to be the case when Kazakh cyclist Alexandr Vinokourov won the men’s road race. The reason critics came out when ‘Vino’ won was simple: he was convicted for blood doping back in the 2007 Tour de France, and his comeback and reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of the media since. Back then, Vino had been caught ‘blood doping’ – the act of storing your own blood so you can use it at a future date. It is an act done by some cancer patients in the medical world when they are about to start chemotherapy, a simple process; store your good blood in the freezer, blast yourself with radiation and damage the blood left over, then inject that stored blood so that you can replenish your body with healthy cells once more. Un/fortunately for Vino, he did not have cancer, but he did have the qualifying mark in the top most categories for doping, according to the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA).

WADA, the world body on cheats in sport, bans drugs if they meet two of three criteria; if they enhance performance, if they harm the patient, or if they are against the ominously subjective ‘spirit of sport’. Herein lies the problem of a ‘two strikes and you’re out’ policy, which drugs qualify for the third category and which do not?

For those who like Vino’s tactic of increasing red blood cells, there is the option of injecting erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone secreted by the kidney which helps the growth of blood cells. Good for anaemics, cheating for sportspeople. Diuretics and beta-blockers are also banned, drugs that I would swallow a whole bottle of if anyone reading this can’t find a sample of them in their grandparents’ medicine cabinets. Diuretics don’t enhance performance. They make you piss a lot. And sure, have enough of them and you will harm your body. But so will any drug. So what makes them bad? They are ‘masking agents’, an iffy reason if any (a lot of drugs can be tested via blood or tissue samples).

Winner of the men’s road race at the London Olympics, Kazakh cyclist Alexandr Vinokourov. Source: AP Photo/ Matt Rourke

But then at times it gets ridiculous; marijuana is banned. Performance enhancing? No. Harm to health? Only as half as much as an unbanned cigarette. Against the ‘spirit of sport’? The Venn diagrams of sport and cannabis do not even cross. I can understand it being banned in rifle shooting or auto racing (which it is, alongside alcohol), but something that could have been ingested 5 days prior to show up positive should not result in a ban.

Of course, performance enhancing drugs should be banned from sport, but there are some which do little to harm or enhance that get banned for old, ingrained reasons, while things such as caffeine are not banned, yet have as much stimulant effect as most of the banned stimulants. The problem is that most of the drugs people cheat with cannot be proven to be performance enhancing, because they are usually taken in a cocktail of four or five, meaning the effects of multiple drugs could be very different to that of any one on its own. Any randomised controlled trial of putting volunteers through a mix of testosterone, growth hormones, insulin, EPO, and diuretics would most likely be unethical and homicidal. Until there is a way to make the system more specific, all grandmothers, high-altitude trekkers, and prostate cancer victims can wait a few years before they give professional sport a clean attempt.

Arghya Gupta is on Twitter: