Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Don't Fetch My Torch Just Yet ...

King Kaufman seems to have been reading my mind. A couple of days ago, while flying across the country (someone else was doing the actual work of piloting the plane, thankfully), I couldn't help but wonder about all the nonsense I've read and heard about drugs in sports. Don't get me wrong, some drugs, like cocaine for instance, are clearly health hazards, not to mention illegal. There's a problem with that. Beyond that, though, we seem to have drawn some rather arbitrary lines. Today Kaufman observes:

What I'm trying to do here is keep from joining the torch-bearing mob. [Former track star Marion Jones] [r]isking her health? Unlike most commentators, I'm happy to admit that I don't understand the health implications of taking so-called performance-enhancing drugs and, barring a midcareer dive into medical school, I don't have much hope of ever understanding them.

I also don't really understand the physics and physiology of these drugs. What can I say? I'm no Jose Canseco. I don't have a mind for science.

Steroids And The Mob

I don't have a mind for science, either, although I'd have to say I come nearer to that level than most sports writers. Maybe that's why I'm confused as to how those lines are drawn:

What I don't get, and I realize it sounds like I'm joking when I say this, and I also realize that people who have spent a lot of time arguing about this subject roll their eyes when someone says it but I'm sorry I still don't get it: Why is it wrong to improve performance by injecting testosterone but OK to improve it by injecting cortisone or having Lasik surgery?

Steroids And The Mob

Why is it OK, even fascinating, for an athlete in one sport to use a hyperbaric chamber:

A hyperbaric chamber requires both a prescription and an open mind.

[Seahawk defensive end Patrick] Kerney's got both.

He suffered a ruptured triceps on the first play last year in Atlanta. Teammate John Abraham suffered an injured groin muscle later that same game, and suddenly the Falcons were staring at the possibility of being without both their starting defensive ends the next week.

"I knew a triceps [injury] was more playable," Kerney said.

Falcons teammate Travis Hall swore by his hyperbaric chamber, which can cost about $20,000. Hall lived halfway between Kerney's house and the Falcons' practice facility. Kerney spent the next few weeks sleeping in the chamber in Hall's basement.

Seahawks | Rituals of recovery

while blood doping is grounds for cheating in another?

"It was only attempted doping," said 29 year-old Ivan Basso to a conference room full of journalists and photographers in Milan's Hotel Michelangelo. The 2006 Giro d'Italia winner called the press conference following his admission of involvement in the OperaciĆ³n Puerto blood doping scandal.

Basso: "It was only attempted doping"

In short, if you leave your blood in your body while you oxygenate it, it's OK. If you take it out of your body to do it, it's not.

That article about the Seahawks player is what really set me to thinking about this issue. It's a long list of the things that professional athletes, football players in particular, do to keep themselves in top condition. That's an important thing in a field where even a little edge can be the difference between being a hero and a goat.

Sports medicine has been one of the fastest-growing fields in medicine. Athletes have been learning how to get more performance out of their bodies using diet, exercise, and medically prescribed drugs for the last four decades. Is it cheating for modern baseball players to eat a balanced diet, while Babe Ruth prefered hot dogs? Is it cheating for Patrick Kerney to use a hyperbaric chamber, while Alex Karras didn't?

One of the other things about this is that while there's been a whole lot of bloviating on the issue of hormones and other performance-enhancing drugs, there's been remarkably little research done into their actual medical effects:

Most data on the long-term effects of anabolic steroids in humans come from case reports rather than formal epidemiological studies. From the case reports, the incidence of lifethreatening effects appears to be low, but serious adverse effects may be underrecognized or underreported, especially since they may occur many years later. Data from animal studies seem to support this possibility. One study found that exposing male mice for one-fifth of their lifespan to steroid doses comparable to those taken by human athletes caused a high frequency of early deaths.

NIDA: What are the health consequences of steroid abuse?

Anecdotal information and studies on rats are what we're going on. Not much information when you compare this with what we know about cigarette smoking or alcohol.

As Kaufman observes, that lack of research extends to the drugs' effect on sports:

So, just to review for baseball: We don't know who took illegal drugs and who didn't, we don't know which drugs or how much of them the drug takers -- whoever they were -- took, and we don't know what effect, if any, the drugs had once they were taken by whoever took them, whom we can't identify.

But they're all a bunch of cheats!

I'll keep my torch unlit, if you don't mind.

Steroids And The Mob

Admittedly, this is sports we're talking about, where the rules are often arbitrary. Why four downs, and and not three? Why is a bat containing only ash OK, but if it's filled with cork, it's cheating? Of course, part of the answer is that everyone's supposed to play that way, but it sure doesn't explain the vehemence of peoples' reactions.

So, as Kaufman says, I'm not going to be picking up my torch and pitchfork just yet.


spincitysd said...

Two words Tom Simpson. Tom Simpson (30 November 1937 - 13 July 1967) was an English road racing cyclist who died of exhaustion on the slopes of Mont Ventoux during the 13th stage of the Tour de France in 1967. The post mortem found that he had taken amphetamines and alcohol, a diuretic combination which proved fatal when combined with the hot conditions, the notoriously hard climb of the Ventoux and a pre-existing stomach complaint.

EPO has also been found to be extremely dangerous too, athletes having to be hooked up to heart monitors to prevent them from dieing in there sleep.

But most of all it is the rule breaking that disturbs the unwashed masses. All sport has rules, they are arbitrary but they are part of the game. Thus cyclist for example are expected to follow the anti-doping rules put down by the sport. Those rules are supported by the sponsors who are paying the bills.

The deal is follow this set of rules and get financially rewarded for doing so. Jones was well payed for her achievements, but she in essence lied. Not quite the same kind of scandal that Eron created but of a kind. Both Ken Lay and Jones gamed the system; both cheated; Jones got punished as would have Lay if he had lived. Rules really do matter.

Cujo359 said...

Two words - anecdotal evidence. People occasionally die while exerting themselves. It's happened to football players, even recently. Do people die more often when using such drugs under medical supervision than when off them? Besides, anyone who has combined alcohol and amphetamines is taking chances no matter what he's doing.

I realize this is about rules. I wrote as much. I just don't take it as seriously as many folks do. The difference between hyperbaric chambers and blood doping in particular strikes me as one of degree, rather than some quantum jump into infamy. Yet that's how it's treated.

It still seems silly to me. But then, situations where people spout opinions without looking into the implications of what they're saying often do.

spincitysd said...

True it is a matter of degree or commitment. Hyperbaric chambers are especially dicey viz blood doping. The chambers do require a commitment of time and must cut into the athlete’s spare time to do, eh hem, other things. As they simulate a natural occurrence, the benefit of high-altitude training, they seem a little more kosher. It fits in nicely into our Puritan ideal of self-denial. Blood doping on the other hand reeks of corner cutting. Yes it is a totally subjective argument but these things do matter.

For whatever reasons the sport chooses the rules it will always smack of arbitrariness. Why not just follow the East German example and bio-engineer the perfect cyclist, boxer, footballer etc? Then every sport can achieve the freak-of-nature status of bodybuilding.

I really do think that the puritan work ethic does have something to do with this. People want to believe that athletes got where they are via hard work, dedication, and sweat. Doping corrupts that fairy tail.

There is the consideration of health also. While the top players might be well compensated for the risks, the lower level players are not. I think of all the College and minor league players who are screwing over their bodies just to tread water where they are at. They are volunteering to be low-paid lab rats for a long term epidemiological study of the effects of these hormones and drugs. Neither of us will know for 20 to 30 years what the real effects will be. I can guess that it won't be pretty; you can't warp basic body systems this much without some sort of blowback. The quantity and quality of that reaction is up for debate, we will see the first real indications in 20 years- possibly a rise in heart attack and stroke, odd bits of cancer popping up, it is anybody’s guess. Only then will a true risk to benefit analysis start to show up.

As a fan of an oddball sport, cycling, it does matter to me that my heroes compete clean. It really does take something away from a cyclist’s epic climb if he is loaded to the gills with testosterone. Floyd Landis was a lesser man when he failed the doping test. First off he looked stupid-come on guy they are going to test you for that stuff! Second the fairy tail of recovering from adversity via grit and determination is shattered. I need that myth, I need that fairy tail. I loved Lance Armstrong because I loved the come back kid aspect of his story. I loved Lance’s manic focus, his determination to win. Most of all I love the idea that he did it clean. The idea of him wining via shear guts and determination with no chemical assistance was an inspiration to me. Maybe you don’t need such tails from your sports figures. I still prefer my guys and gals to run, spin, swim, jump and hit without chemical assistance.

Cujo359 said...

My time's short right now, but I don't want to ignore your response..

The quick version of my response is that I don't see that the road Armstrong traveled was necessarily more worthy than Landis'. Both had to recover from a serious setback. Each had to face that setback with courage and fortitude so he could return to form. That Landis cheated is unfortunate, but it doesn't lessen the hardship he had to go through to get back.

Former bicyclist turned pshychologist Micheal Shermer once wrote, when describing an interview he had while he was losing ground to his competitor, that the mistake he made was not choosing his parents carefully. What he meant by that was that the limits of his genetic inheritence were greater than those of the guy who was ahead. In his case, perhaps it could have been an excuse, but the plain fact is that we've about reached the point in many sports where there aren't many more improvements that can be made to training or other aspects of preparation. The athlete who is naturally stronger, quicker, or has greater endurance is once again the one with the advantage. Does this mean that all the others should accept that limitation? Hardly seems like there'd be a need for races any more, does there?

In the future we're all going to have to deal with these issues. Is it right to try to make all human beings as capable as possible? Is that even desirable? It's a choice we're being confronted with, and I don't trust folks who don't seem to have given any thought to that idea. (Not that I'm accusing you of that, BTW).