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Femke Van den Driessche _Sporza

It’s been suspected for a while. The effortless speed. The wheels continuing to spin way longer than they should after a crash.

Tiny motors in bicycles.

“Bike doping.”

And finally, on January 28, 2017, a bicycle of a racer who had dropped out of the cyclocross world championships in Zolder, Belgium was seen to have electrical cables coming out of part of its body, according to this article. Upon further investigation, a small motor was found.

The bike belonged to a 19-year old Belgian cyclist named Femke Van den Driessche, a champion of Belgian national cyclo-cross and junior mountain bike tournaments. She was a favorite in the Zolder event until a mechanical problem ended her race. It has also put her career in suspension as Van den Driessche was banned for six years, and would be required to forfeit all results since October 10, 2015.

Van den Driessche said “It wasn’t my bike — it was that of a friend and was identical to mine,” according to this article. But her coach, Rudy De Bie said he was “disgusted.” “We thought that we had in Femke a great talent in the making but it seems that she fooled everyone,” he told Sporza.

Coincidentally, the day after this first publicly realized case of “bike doping”, the American news program, 60 Minutes, aired a segment entitled “Enhancing the Bike“. Correspondent, Bill Whitaker went to Budapest, Hungary to meet an engineer named Stefano Varjs, who designed a motor small enough to fit unseen inside the frame of a bike and powerful enough to motor an adult up a hill with relative ease.

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Stefano Varjas and Bill Whitaker_60 Minutes – click on image to watch this 60 Minutes’ segment.

When Varis showed this invention to a friend in 1998, the friend said he had a buyer who wanted this technology and would pay a handsome sum, if the buyer was assured of exclusive right to this technology for 10 years. Varis was paid USD2 million, an offer he simply could not refuse.

From that point on, it has been suspected that motorized bikes have been used in competitions, even the Tour de France. Here is part of the transcript of the 60 Minutes report:

Jean-Pierre Verdy is the former testing director for the French Anti-Doping Agency who investigated doping in the Tour de France for 20 years.

Bill Whitaker: Have there been motors used in the Tour de France?

Jean-Pierre Verdy: Yes, of course. It’s been the last three to four years when I was told about the use of the motors. And in 2014, they told me there are motors. And they told me, there’s a problem. By 2015, everyone was complaining and I said, something’s got to be done.

Verdy said he’s been disturbed by how fast some riders are going up the mountains. As a doping investigator, he relied for years on informants among the team managers and racers in the peloton, the word for the pack of riders. These people told Jean-Pierre Verdy that about 12 racers used motors in the 2015 Tour de France.

Bill Whitaker: The bikers who use motors, what do you think of them and what they’re doing to cycling?

Jean-Pierre Verdy: They’re hurting their sport. But human nature is like that. Man has always tried to find that magic potion.

Watch the video below to see an example of a possible bike that’s been doped.

jamaica-4x100-beijing
Nesta Carter, second from left, tested positive for doping following Jamaica’s relay gold win at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/The Associated Press)

The 4×100 relay is a team sport in the strictest ways – all four individuals have to do their part, either by executing exactly to plan and training, or by following the rules to ensure minimum eligibility. If one individual fails, the entire team fails. There is very little room for error.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Usain Bolt made history running the third leg in the 4×100 men’s relay, becoming the first person ever to win gold in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4×100 men’s relay in the same athletics event. Not only that, he achieved all three victories in world record time.

But in late January of 2017, it was announced that his teammate, Nesta Carter, had tested positive for a banned stimulant (methylhexaneamine). In 2008, after the finals, Carter’s urine test came up negative. But due to the shocking news last year of systematic state-sponsored doping in Russia, the IOC asked for re-testing of results going back ten years, as the tools to uncover traces of banned substances has improved significantly over the years. Dozens of athletes have now tested positive, many of them medalists, including Carter. And because Carter has been disqualified, so too has the entire Jamaican 4×100 team.

Many who love and respect Bolt feel Bolt’s record has been tarnished, perhaps unfairly. And when Bolt and his teammates won gold in the 4×100 relay at the Rio Olympics, he became the first person ever to win the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4×100 men’s relay in three straight Olympics – the so-called Triple Triple. Well, that golden symmetry has been disturbed with the removal of the 4×100 gold in Beijing.

But most people will agree, the loss of the relay gold will not hurt Bolt’s immense legacy. Even Bolt believes that to be the case. “I think I’ve accomplished a lot. This hasn’t changed what I have done throughout my career. I have worked hard and pushed and done things that no one has done before. I have won three gold medals over the 100m and 200m, which no one has ever done before.”

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Trinidad and Tobago trading up from silver to gold

The part of this story that does not get played up, the happy side of this story, is the medalists who move up the medal table:

Trinidad and Tobago: a traditional powerhouse in sprinting, took Olympic gold in the 4×100 meter relay for the first time. While they could have whooped it up, there is so much respect for Usain Bolt amidst the Caribbean nations, that the celebration in Trinidad and Tobago was somewhat muted, as represented in the comments of Trinidad’s gold-medalist, Richard Thompson. “Bolt’s achievements have been recorded in the annals of athletics and no one can take that away. Rather than lament for the Jamaican team, I prefer to focus all my energy on lauding my Trinbagonian athletes who ran a ‘clean’ race.”

Japan: At the Rio Olympics, Japan took silver in the men’s 4×100 relay, second only to mighty Jamaica, in a surprise. The Japan team had bested their country’s top men’s relay track result, bronze at the Beijing Olympics. But now, the men’s sprint team from 2008 are now equal to the 2016 – silver medalists. And heading into the Tokyo2020 Olympics, young runners have even greater reason to be inspired to train hard, run clean and dream.

Brazil: Perhaps the happiest group in these medal re-shuffles are the fourth-place finishers who wake up one morning to find out they are now bronze medalists. They missed the pomp and circumstance of standing on the medal podium and seeing their flag raised in front of billions of people. They may have missed financial opportunities that come with a medal finish right after the Olympics. But they now have something they didn’t expect to have – a medal. As Bruno de Barros, a member of Brazil’s 4×100 relay team, said “It’s a great sense of happiness, despite the time lapse, which isn’t really important. The feeling of being an Olympic medalist is the same. In fact, after waiting so long, it’s worth more.”

shinji-takahira-handing-off-to-nobuharu-asahara-of-the-now-silver-medal-winning-mens-relay-team-from-japan
Shinji Takahira handing off to Nobuharu Asahara of the now silver-medal winning men’s relay team from Japan.

sleep-deprivation

I wrote recently about cycling coach, Sky Christopherson, and his recommendations for a particular member of the US women’s cycling team to get more deep-sleep in order to improve the performance and recovery of her intensive training regimen. Sensors attached to her body were informing the cycling team that Jenny Reed’s body temperature was not cool enough to reach consistent levels of deep sleep, so they made efforts to ensure a cooler room and mattress in order for her to get the sleep she needed to maximize the return from the next day’s training.

I found that tidbit fascinating. I had been reading fairly consistently over the years of the importance of sleep in the workplace and the impact that sleep deprivation has on performance of employees. Here are some of the insights I gathered from a recent internet search:

  • Sleep experts often liken sleep-deprived people to drunk drivers: They don’t get behind the wheel thinking they’re probably going to kill someone. But as with drunkenness, one of the first things we lose in sleep deprivation is self-awareness. (The Atlantic)
  • One 2014 study of more than 3,000 people in Finland found that the amount of sleep that correlated with the fewest sick days was 7.63 hours a night for women and 7.76 hours for men. (The Atlantic)
  • On an annual basis, the US loses an equivalent of about 1.23 million working days due to insufficient sleep. This is followed by Japan, which loses on average 604 thousand working days per year. The UK and Germany have similar working time lost, with 207 thousand and 209 thousand days, respectively. Canada loses about 78 thousand working days. (Rand)
  • An individual that sleeps on average less than six hours per night has a ten per cent higher mortality risk than someone sleeping between seven and nine hours. An individual sleeping between six to seven hours per day still has a four per cent higher mortality risk. (Rand)
  • When asked what factors are keeping us awake at night, the need to use the bathroom (55%), an old, uncomfortable bed (46%) and partner snoring (42%) emerged top. Meanwhile, 23% claimed they were being kept awake by the partner using a mobile phone or tablet in the bedroom.  (Huffington Post)

There is far less research done on the impact of sleep deprivation on athletes, but the emerging consensus is sleep “can have significant effects on athletic performance”, according to the paper “Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep“.

Sleep deprivation can impact how effectively your body metabolizes fat, as well as your neuroendocrine system, which impacts how much human growth hormone (HGH) gets released. Because HGH is important to how fresh and ready you are to take on physical and cognitive tasks during waking hours, and to how fast you recover from exercise, experts are preaching more and more how important it is for athletes (particularly young athletes) to get more sleep, especially more quality sleep. Why fiddle with illegal injections of HGH? You can get HGH naturally by simply hitting the hay.

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Examples of my sleep patterns, taken from my Fitbit on two different days.

While the research on the correlation between sleep and sports performance is still light, the paper cited above provides some of the early findings:

 

  • Improved Physical Performance: Increased sleep has been shown to increase the performance of basketball players in their sprint speed and free-throw performance over a two-week period. Additionally, increased sleep led to better moods, and thus “increased vigour”. The same researchers found similar results with swimmers with improved sprint times, turn times and mood improvement. Napping for 30 minutes also has an impact, with post-nap sprint speeds increasing.
  • Improved Cognitive Performance: Increased sleep has shown to have an impact on attention spans, ability to concentrate, memory, and other high-level cognitive functions. This is particularly relevant to the ability to perform in team sports. If you’re feeling drunk from lack of sleep, you won’t be able to see the field of play as fully as you like, or anticipate the consequences of newly adjusted offensive or defensive alignments, or recall the rules well enough to make the split-second decisions required in the heat of play.
  • Diminished Levels of Pain: Athletes have all sorts of aches and pains from the beating their bodies take from competition and training. According to the research, sleep deprivation can “cause or modulate acute and chronic pain”. In other words, you can encourage a vicious cycle of pain, which causes you to lose sleep, which enhances the pain, which makes leads to continued loss of sleep. And as stated before, loss of sleep results in disruption to the release of HGH.

In other words, whether you are fighting it out in the corporate jungle or on the playing field, sleep, particularly deep sleep, may be your biggest competitive advantage in today’s always-on lifestyle. Sleep, perchance to dream….of greatness.

 

Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

    Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

The bigger picture at the Rio Olympics:

Cambridge Bolt and Brommel

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Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall in Mexico City

One thousand Russians are known to have benefited from doping and the cover-up of doping in the state-sponsored program to provide illicit advantage to Russian athletes, particularly during the 2012 London Olympics, the 2013 track and field world championships in Beijing, and the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The first major report on Russia from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in July, 2016 included a recommendation to the IOC to ban the entire Russian team from the 2016 Rio Olympics. As a result, over a hundred Russians were eventually forbidden from competing in Brazil.

WADA released a follow-up report on December 9, 2016 – a far more comprehensive review of the state-sponsored doping program in Russia, and it was damning. And there will likely be another round of medal shuffling – at least 15 Russian medalists at the Sochi Winter Games had urine samples that had been tampered with.

It’s a grim time for international sports – the insidious plague of doping and the lengths individuals and countries will go. It makes me pine for those halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s (yes, written with ironical intent), when our views on doping were less sophisticated.

The first person ever disqualified for “doping”, as it were, was when Swede Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall was discovered to have ingested an illegal substance prior to competing in the modern pentathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics – beer.

It’s said that he had a couple of beers and that traces of alcohol were found in urine. Unlucky for Liljenvall, 1968 was the first year that the IOC included urine testing, as well as alcohol on the list of banned substances. Unfortunately, Liljenwall took his two other teammates down with him, as they lost their bronze medals as well.

Why beer? After all, alcohol is a depressant, not a simulant. This article supposes, probably correctly, that in certain hand-eye coordination events, like pistol shooting in the pentathlon, you need to calm yourself, as opposed to gear yourself up. That’s the same reasoning why anti-psychotics are sometimes illegally injected into horses in equestrian events – to calm down the excitable horses.

Today, getting disqualified for beer sounds silly. Getting banned for caffeine too, but I suppose only to the non-athlete. My mind wonders how many cups of coffee or cans of red bull would it take to get you to world record levels…but I suppose that is not what WADA is looking for.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and until 2004, it was a banned substance. In fact, the second person ever banned for “doping” was a Mongolian judoka named Bakhaavaa Buidaa, who lost his silver medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics after over 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter was found in his urine. At least that’s how a lot of sources explain this incident.

But there are also references to Buidaa taking Dianabol, an anabolic steroid that provides a low-cost way of building muscle quickly. Since combining caffeine and Dianabol is a popular routine for athletes who need muscle mass to compete, it’s possible that both were in the judoka’s system.

Caffeine was taken off the banned substance list, but it is still on the IOC monitoring list.

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Cian O’Connor on Waterford Crystal

Show Jumper Cian O’Connor was stripped of his gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. O’Connor didn’t do the jumping himself. The Irishman is an equestrian, who rode a horse named Waterford Crystal. In competition horses also get tested for illegal drugs, and at the Athens Games, traces of various anti-psychotic and pain relieving drugs were found in Waterford Crystal.

So yes, Jane Fonda, they do shoot (up) horses.

Apparently, anti-pscyhotic drugs like fluphenazine are commonly used to calm horses, particularly in cases when horses have been injured and completed treatment, but won’t stay calm and allow their wounds to heal. Another drug like reserpine acts as a long-lasting sedative, which is likely prescribed for similar reasons as fluphenzine. They were likely in Waterford Crystal in order to calm this excitable horse and thus give the rider a more stable mount in competition.

Clearly the horse has no say in the matter. The team around the horse, including the rider and the trainer, are held accountable for what goes in the body of the horse. About a year after the Athens Olympics, O’Connor had to return his gold medal, and Rodrigo Pessoa of Brazil became the new showjumping king, trading his silver for gold. Chris Kappler of America got to trade his bronze for silver, and suddenly, Marco Kutscher of Germany was awarded a bronze medal.

Four years later in Beijing, a horse named Camiro was found to have the illegal pain killer, capsaicin, in her system. Camiro was the horse of rider Tony Andre Hansen, who was one of four members of the Norwegian jumping team. Camiro apparently failed the first of two drug tests so Hansen was not allowed to compete in the individual jumping event, but was allowed to compete in the team event, at which Norway took the bronze medal.

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Riders from the team of Norway celebrate during the victory ceremony of the team jumping final of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games equestrian events in Hong Kong, south China, Aug. 18, 2008. Tony Andre Hansen far left (Xinhua/Zhou Lei)

The Norwegian team stood on the medal podium and sank in the cheers and congratulations. Ten days later, after the Beijing Games had completed, Camiro failed a second test. With Hansen’s horse now DQ’ed, the Norwegian team dropped from third to tenth in the point totals. The four members of Team Switzerland were suddenly bronze medalists.

As for Cian O’Connor, eight years later at the 2012 Olympics, he was able to ride a horse named Blue Loyd 12 to the medal podium, taking the bronze medal in the London Games.

Men's hammer throw gold medal winner Adr
Ivan Tsikhan, Adrian Annus, and Koji Murofushi with their medals just after the 2004 hammer throw competition in Athens

Koji Murofushi of Japan is not only an Olympian, he’s an alchemist. In his career, he’s turned silver into gold and made bronze appear and disappear.

In 2004, Murofushi was dueling it out with fellow hammer thrower, Adrián Annus of Hungary. Murofushi, though, must have been a bit frustrated because for every mighty throw he made, Annus would throw one slightly further. And in the third of six throws in the finals of the hammer throw, Annus tossed the hammer 83.19 meters, which Murofushi simply could not match. His final throw of the event went 82.91 meters, well beyond every other competitor, except for Annus.

Thus, on August 22, 2004, the Hungarian took the gold in the hammer throw, and the Japanese the silver.

Only a few days after Murofushi stood listening to the Hungarian national anthem on the winner’s podium, he heard the news: Annus would be stripped of his gold medal. As it turned out, the urine samples Annus submitted to authorities before and after the hammer throw competition appeared to be from two different people, neither of them chemically linked to Annus. He was then asked to submit to a urine test after his return to Hungary, but Annus never showed up for the test. Annus was then ordered to return his gold medal so that it could be handed to Murofushi. It took a while, but several months later, under pressure of the IOC and the constant media attention, Annus relented and relinquished his Olympic title.

Murofushi’s silver turned to gold, and he is now the hammer throw champion of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

In 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, Slovenian hammer thrower, Primož Kozmus, won almost every one of the six rounds. He threw 82.02 meters four of those five times, which must have been a bit frustrating, but that mark was still good enough to best all other finalists. Murofushi could not repeat his gold-medal winning distance of 82.91 meters in Athens, his best throw of 80.71 landing him in fifth and thus medal-less.

But in the months after the Beijing Olympics, the IOC began reviewing the test results of the 2008 Olympians and concluded that Vadim Devyatovskiy and Ivan Tsikhan of Belarus had tested positive for abnormal levels of testosterone after the hammer throw competition. (Tsikhan had already been stripped of his bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.) In December of 2008, the IOC ordered that the Belarusians be stripped of their respective silver and bronze medals, and that the fourth and fifth place finishers receive those medals. As Murofushi finished fifth, he was belatedly awarded the bronze medal, becoming only the third Japanese to win medals in consecutive Olympic Games.

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Koji Murofushi at the Beijing Olympics

“It’s a real honor to get a medal in two straight Olympics,” Murofushi was quoted as saying in this Japan Times article. “But it is sad that this has come about because of doping. These were buddies I competed together with so it is incredibly disappointing. This (doping problem) is something the sports world really needs to tackle. It has to be thought of as a very serious problem.”

In the meanwhile, the Belarusians did not take their ignominy sitting down. They appealed the ruling, taking their case to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, the international body that settles disputes related to the Olympics. And in June of 2010, the court upheld the appeal from the Belarusians. Apparently, the court uncovered irregularities in the way the urine samples were handled, thus making it difficult to determine with conviction that doping had taken place. As a result, their silver and bronze medals were restored to them, and Murofushi dropped back down to fifth. He was not to receive a medal for his results in Beijing.

Murofushi’s remarks to the press showed he was willing to be diplomatic, emphasizing the positive. As he said in this Kyodo article, “doping is gaining more and more attention and this will result in stricter tests. I think this will be a plus for me at the London Olympics.”

Maybe it was. Murofushi, at the age of 37, took bronze in the hammer throw at the 2012 London Olympics.