electrically stimulated muscles_Cybathlon
Wheelchair racers whose legs are paralyzed, but whose leg muscles are electro-stimulated to move

 

We cringe when we hear about yet another doping case in sports. Dopers are cheaters! We hope that international bodies like World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) can stay close with the shadow chemists who continue to devise new ways to mask the fingerprints of performance enhancing agents.

We thrill to see a double amputee sprint on carbon-fiber blades, but we worry if they will one day far outpace sprinters who race on legs they were born with. Unfair advantage!

The truth is science and technology, if it had a will of its own, is ever eager to advance, solve problems, and push the inside of the envelope. The infamous Oscar Pistorius was allowed to compete at the 2012 Olympics on his blades, running in the 400 meter and 4X400 meter competitions. Technology in this case did not afford the runner an advantage to take him to the elite levels of sprinting.

But we all know, it’s a matter of time. The “Six-Million Dollar Man” Scenario, where a given person with various prostheses and enhancements will be “better than he was. Better….stronger….faster.” The Six Million Dollar Man debuted on American television in 1973. If the main character, Steve Austin, wanted to participate in the 1976 Olympic Games, he would have won gold in almost every athletic event. Why he wasted time as a secret agent for the OSI is beyond me.

The Six Million Dollar Man

So what does the future hold? Clearly, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs will continue to look for ways for people with disabilities to return to so-called “normalcy”. They will also look for ways to give “normal” people super-human abilities. In the case of organized sports, the nature of competition will continue to change. In fact, it already has.

When technology creates a totally different standard of performance, new competitions arise, as was explained in this Wired Magazine article from 2012.

When such devices are perfected to the point that they can be used for athletic purposes, we’ll be looking at an entirely new concept of sport. It’s doubtful the Olympics will ever feature exoskelletally assisted runners or weightlifters, but what’s to say that a different type of venue won’t arise for such a thing? “I think that once the technology is proven to exceed normal human function, then the stage will be set for the introduction of a whole new type of enhanced sporting entertainment,” said Matthew Garibaldi, director of the Orthotic and Prosthetic Centers for the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC San Francisco.

In fact, two competitions that put technology front and center have emerged. As explained in this Inverse.com article, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich organizes a competition called the Cybathlon, the next one scheduled on October 6. It’s similar to the Paralympics, in which disabled people use technology, like a prosthesis, and the athlete

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Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova speaks at a press conference in Los Angeles, on March 7, 2016.  / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

The world was shocked when world #11 and five-time grand slam singles champion, Maria Sharapova, was suspended from tennis competition for use of a banned substance, meldonium. The tennis world reacted with scorn for the former world #1 women’s tennis player:

  • John McEnroe: “It would be hard to believe that no one in her camp, the 25 or 30 people that work for her, or Maria herself, had (any) idea that (meldonium had been banned).”
  • Jennifer Capriati: “I didn’t have the high priced team of [doctors] that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up.”

Capriati is making the most powerful case against doping from an athlete’s perspective. Taking banned or illegal drugs to enhance performance is cheating. And to not call out cheats is unfair to those who are not taking drugs that give advantage.

Sponsors dropped Sharapova like an overripe fruit with maggots inside. All except Head, the racquet manufacturer.

According to this statement from HEAD, “We question WADA’s decision to add meldonium to its banned substances list in the manner it did; we believe the correct action by WADA would have been to impose a dosage limitation only. In the circumstances we would encourage WADA to release scientific studies which validates their claim that meldonium should be a banned substance.”

WADA is the World Anti-Doping Association, the international governing body that establishes what athletes may or may not put into their bodies. The president of WADA, Dick Pound responded to HEAD’s statement to the BBC:

“First and foremost, Head is a manufacturer and seller of tennis rackets, among other things. So far as I’m aware, it’s not a medical expert and not in a position to amend the world anti-doping code. As for its view as a commercial racket seller as to whether meldonium should be on the list of prohibited substances or not, quite frankly I prefer the scientific opinion of medical experts to the commercial interest of somebody telling tennis rackets using a player who is subject to whatever discipline is called for under the world anti-doping code. A complete conflict of interest on its part, combined with a lack of knowledge of the particular substance.”

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World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Canadian lawyer Dick Pound / AFP PHOTO/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

That is a powerful and damning retort from Pound, whose efforts helped lead to the suspension of Russia’s entire track and field team from international competition, including the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics.

And yet, this is what confuses me. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus among “medical experts” as to whether meldonium actually enhances performance in athletes.

This New York Times article explains the science of how meldonium works. In short, burning glucose in your body releases more energy than burning fat. The “science” states that meldonium will work to encourage the burning of glucose, not fat. So when you’re oxygen starved, a situation many high-performance athletes find themselves in when they exert themselves, the meldonium will give them a glucose burn and a bigger burst of oxygen.

Meldonium box
A box of meldonium pills, legally marketed as Mildronate primarily in Eastern Europe.

The same New York Times article, entitled “Effects of Meldonium on Athletes are Hazy“, quotes Dr Eric Brass of UCLA, who questions the correlation between meldonium and greater athletic performance.

“In general, if one is involved in short-duration, sprint-type activity, one tends to use glucose because it is more available and it is an efficient way to generate energy quickly,” said Dr. Eric Brass, a professor of medicine at U.C.L.A. Still, Brass said it was not clear if that was what was really happening in athletes. “The science behind many of these performance-enhancing compounds is limited, biased and subject to misinterpretation,” he said. Several of the studies on meldonium were done on rats and published only in Russian.

This is why doping stories outrage me and put me to sleep at the same time. I definitely

sebastian coe_head of IAAF.png

How do you clean up corruption when it is perceived that all parties are steeped in it?

According to this powerful opinion piece by Juliet Macur of the New York Times, better to go with the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.

She writes how the head of WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency), Dick Pound, has consistently been blunt and hardline with regards to corruption in athletics, particularly as it relates to doping. (She cites in the article a hysterical quote from Pound about a famous cyclist’s testosterone levels as a case in point.) But for some reason, when it comes to the fate of IAAF leader, Sebastian Coe, Pound somehow found it in his heart to praise and support, not tear down. As Macur wrote, “What had WADA done with the real Dick Pound?”

Coe took gold in the 1500 meters in 1980 and 1984, was elected as an MP in the British Parliament, and has been a leader in the International Amateur Athletics Federation since 2007, recently becoming the head of the IAAF last August. To be honest, it’s a lousy time to be the head of the IAAF, which is under a dark cloud of suspicion.

SEbastian Coe wins gold in 1500 in Los Angeles
Sebastian Coe wins gold in the 1500 meter race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games

There are allegations of gifts made in exchange for awarding the 2019 world track and field championships to Doha, Qatar. There is the state-sponsored doping program in Russia that was conveniently ignored by the IAAF but eventually exposed by WADA, resulting in Russia’s track and field being banned from international competition, including the Rio Olympics in August. There is the suspected doping of Kenya’s runners, whose performance at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing last August was so superlative, they topped the medals tables for the first time ever.

And finally, there is Coe himself, who very reluctantly disassociated himself from his long-time paid association with Nike. The IAAF awarded the 2021 Athletics World Championships to Eugene, Oregon in the US, with apparently a formal bidding process. Oregon is definitely a hotbed for track, so Eugene’s selection is not a surprise. But Oregon is also the home to Nike. There’s no real indication that Nike, and thus Coe, had anything shady to do with the selection process. But taken all together, the IAAF is not currently a poster child for transparency and ethical decision making.

But as Macur explains, “It can be difficult to find purity at the top of international sports. In track and field, Coe, the former middle-distance star and Olympic champion, just might be the best option. He should serve his punishment for not speaking out against pervasive doping in track and field. His sentence: to clean up his dirty sport.”

Macur goes on to quote 5,000-meter runner and champion, Lauren Fleshmen as saying that Coe probably didn’t know all the corrupt things going on in the IAAF because of its

Yulia Stepanova and Vitaliy Stepanov in the ARD Documentary Geheimsache Doping Top Secret Doping
Yulia Stepanova and Vitaliy Stepanov in the ARD Documentary Geheimsache Doping Top Secret Doping

As incredible as it may sound, the entire Russian track and field team have been banned from international competition, and may be prevented from competing in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was announced on November 13 that Russia’s track and field federation was suspended in a 27-1 vote by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the global governing body of track and field. Not only has numerous cases of doping been uncovered, based on a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), doping appears to have been systemic, involving coaches, athletes and officials.

As the report explains, “The investigation indicates that the acceptance of cheating at all levels is widespread and of long standing. An athlete’s decision not to participate is likely to leave him or her without access to top caliber coaches and thus the opportunities to excel. This acceptance and, at times, expectation of cheating…indicate a fundamentally flawed mindset that is deeply ingrained in all levels of Russian athletics. The mindset is ‘justified’ on the theory that everyone else is cheating as well.”

WADA was prompted into action after the airing of a documentary by German broadcaster ARD called “Geheimsache Doping”, or “Top Secret Doping” in English.

Below are excerpts from the English transcript of the now-famous documentary. You can watch an English version of the documentary here.

When discus thrower, Evgenia Pwcherina is asked by a report how many athletes from the national team in Russia are doping, she replies, “Most of them. The greater part. 99%. And you get absolutely anything. Everything the athlete wants. And the shorter the period it can be detected, the more expensive the product.”

Said Oleg Popov, a Russian coach, “The athlete has no choice. Either you prepare yourself in national team with banned substances, in order to win medals which are also accredited to the Federation – the head coach, the Ministry of Sport, the Federation President, the entire Russian Athletics Federation. And, if you are unable to agree with this scheme, which they offer you, then things can move very quickly and you’re out.”

One of the first people to approach the producer of the documentary, Hajo Seppelt, was a

The logo for the World Anti-Doping Agency
The logo for the World Anti-Doping Agency

It appears that success is catching up with Kenya. Soon after topping the medals table at the World Athletics Championships in August, Kenya is under fire for an apparent and rampant doping of athletes, and now face a possible 4-year ban from competition, which would include the Rio Olympics in 2016.

As the New York Times reported, a Kenyan profession who headed an independent investigation into drug use by Kenyan athletes told the French magazine, “L’Equippe, “In this country, there is more EPO being consumed by athletes than by the ill.”

When Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia made his mark as a gold medalist from North Africa in Rome and Tokyo in the early 1960s, and fellow Africans began to find success in track, it was thought that the tradition of running long distances in high altitude environments was a natural competitive advantage.

But apparently, that advantage was not enough, and Kenyans in particularly have fallen into a culture of performance enhancing drugs. EPO, or erythropoietin, which is a hormone that controls the production of red blood cells, is now commonly used. Allegations of doping were strengthened when the blood tests of championship athletes, including 77 Kenyans, were leaked to the British paper, The Sunday Times, earlier this year.

Rita Jeptoo, of Kenya, breaks the tape to win the women's division of the 118th Boston Marathon Monday, April 21, 2014 in Boston. She Marathons, tested positive for a banned substance in September 2014 and was banned for two years in January.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Rita Jeptoo, of Kenya, breaks the tape to win the women’s division of the 118th Boston Marathon Monday, April 21, 2014 in Boston. She Marathons, tested positive for a banned substance in September 2014 and was banned for two years in January.
(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Unfortunately, what has not become commonplace is a custom of testing and accountability. Just yesterday, Kenya Olympic Committee president, Kip Keino expressed the seriousness of the threat to Kenya. “It is no longer just a threat,” said the two-time Olympic champion. “They think Kenya is sweeping doping issues under the carpet.” According to this Reuters report, the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) has been tracking Kenya’s doping situation for many years, but now seem about to act.