Wednesday, 24 October 2012

How do we stop doping in cycling? (Part 1)

Well, everybody must know by now about the downfall of Lance Armstrong.  Rather than being viewed as a hero and as an inspiration, he is now commonly being referred to as a cheat, bully, and fraud.  His sponsors have dropped him, his titles have been stripped, and he has been forced to step down as chairman of Livestrong.

Admittedly, it is sad time for me because he was a childhood hero, as he was for many others.  But unfortunately, he just was not the athlete we were lead to believe.  USADA's reasoned decision paints the true picture of who Amstrong was during those years; an athlete who wins at absolutely any cost.

Who is to blame?

Although Armstong is in the spotlight with regards to his drug use, it is not as though he introduced doping into the sport of cycling.  As early as the late 1800's, athletes were noted to be using cocaine, heroin, morphine among other drugs in the hopes of enhancing performance. 

In the mid 1900's, amphetamines came along.  Italian cyclists referred to them as la bomba, due to the drug's ability to mask fatigue, and help athletes push beyond their normal limits.    

Then in the 1980's, the wonder drug, EPO, came along.  It works by increasing the red blood cell content of your blood.  With a higher red blood cell count, your oxygen carrying capacity increases, and thus performance goes up.  The winner of the 1998 Tour de France, Marco Pantani, was thrown out of the '99 Giro D'Italia for a high hematorict level (to many red blood cells), pointing to EPO use. 

We also cannot forget the entire Festina scandal, in which the entire team was thrown out of the 1998 Tour de France due to EPO use.

So, was Armstrong the inventor of doping in the sport cycling?  Not even close.  Some evidence even points to the fact that he was pressured to dope, at least in part, because of the already rampant use of EPO and other doping methods.

Armstrong racing in 1993
"It's harder to race this year, cycling is harder now. In a year, I tell you, man. I hate to point fingers, and I'm not going to do that. But there are a lot of guys who are a lot better and a lot faster than last year," Armstrong said in a 1994 interview.

He couldn't keep up in 1994 the way he could the year before.  He did not say it was because there was doping, but he was insinuating something was up; what else could he be talking about given the sports' history?

At that point in time, Armstrong was faced with a dilemma.   He could choose to either fall into obscurity within the sport, or start to dope.  What else would an ultra-competitive, aggressive, and dominant personality-type chose?  It is not a stretch to speculate that his unrelenting, and almost unreasonable drive to succeed propelled him not only to start using illegal performance enhancing drugs, but to become the best user the sport has ever seen.

In his book, It's Not About the Bike, Armstrong stated that he, "tackled the problem of the Tour as if [he] were in math class, science class,chemistry class, and nutrition class, all rolled into one. [He] did computer calculations that balanced [his] body weight and [his] equipment weight with the potential velocity of the bike in various stages, trying to find the equation that would get [him] to the finish line faster than anybody else. [He] kept careful computer graphs of [his] training rides, calibrating the distances, wattages, and thresholds."  

In the same way he methodically attacked aerodynamics, equipment, nutrition, and training, USADA's reasoned decision makes it quite evident that he and his accomplices pursued doping with the same intensity.  

What Armstrong could have done

So Armstrong made some morally wrong decisions due to pressure of an existing doping culture.  Does this make him a victim?  The culture of cycling played into Armstrong's decision to dope; there is no doubt.  His unrelenting drive to win also factored in.  

That being said, it is unreasonable to suggest that every professional cyclist with a dominant personality-type had no choice but to use banned substances.  There was a third variable at play here; the fact that there was something in Armstrong's brain that decided winning was more important than playing by the rules.

He could have taken the high road and chosen to be a regular guy who is a good cyclist.  Take Scott Mercier for example; he walked away from cycling when confronted with drugs for the first time.  While it must have been impossibly hard to walk away form the sport, Mercier admits he feels better about it these days.

With regards to Armstrong being stripped of his accolades, along with his teammates also admitting to drug use, Mercier states, "It certainly gives me some validation for the decision I made.  It wasn't that I wasn't good enough, it was just that I made different choices. They talk about winning at all costs, but are you willing to push well beyond the limits?  I'm not, I think there's more to life than that. Sport should be a level playing field and it wasn't. It was who had the best team and resources and the best medicine and that wasn't the game I wanted to play."

Former pro-cyclist, Scott Mercier
Mercier did not want to leave the sport.  He wanted to compete.  It also is obvious that there was part of him that at least considered doping as an option.  

"I would see the likes of Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie having great success in the Tour and wonder 'where would I have ended up?" Mercier explains.

There is no doubt that Mercier was conflicted.  He had the same drive to succeed that Armstrong possessed.  But, when that drive was confronted with the idea of cheating, he opted to step away from cycling.  Armstrong could have done the same when confronted with the challenges he faced in 1994.

Yes, there were other factors influencing what Armstrong did.  However, it is just plain ignorant  if one fails to acknowledge USADA's reasoned decision and view him as a victim of cycling culture.  At the end of the day, it was Armstrong's fault.

By the same token, I think it is equally ignorant to keep beating up on Armstrong thinking that it will help.  Cycling culture was deeply rooted in doping.  Yes, Armstrong dove head first into that culture and took it to a new level.  But he is not the inventor, and the solution stems much deeper than punishing him unnecessarily.  Heck, even Armstrong's enemies agree.

It is time to move forward to figure out a real solution.  A sport where there is no doping is something I think everybody would be happier with.  Now it is just a matter of how to get there.

So what is the solution?

First of all, it is clear that what we are doing now is not enough.  After all, the UCI claims to have tested Armstrong a total of 218 times.  None of these tests were positive for doping.  There are two explanations for this:

  • Somehow, there actually have been no positive tests
  • Any positive tests that were found were subsequently covered up
In all likelihood, it is a combination of the two options.  The tests are flawed, there's no doubt there.  For instance, other then measuring the density of your red blood cells, EPO is very difficult to detect directly. So what is preventing athletes from doping up to the legal limit?

That aside, there is good reason to believe that the testers are also corrupt.  The UCI has long been criticized by three time Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond.  The UCI has also pushed to silence LeMond, and have not been successful in doing so. 

In an interesting story, LeMond's wife, Kathy LeMond,  testified under oath that $500,000 was paid to then UCI president, Hein Verbruggen, to get rid of a positive Armstrong test.

Most recently, Tyler Hamilton has called for Pat McQuad to step down as UCI president, claiming  hypocrisy among the union, and describing the sports inability to regulate itself.  

How do we fix this ongoing issue?  That is what I will discuss with my next post.  What are your thoughts on a potential solution?

Also, check out this article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which discusses why doping should be legalized.  Is this a plausible solution in your mind?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Vitamin supplements may not be as useful as we once thought

Sorry for the delay on writing a new article.  It was a busy month with racing in France among a few other things.  This week I wrote an article for the New Hamburg Independent which takes a look at why vitamin supplements may not be as useful as you may think.  As per usual, my space is limited, and the article is more of a basic summary, but it's a good start.  Let me know if you have any other questions!

**EDIT** Keep in mind there is always two sides to the story.  It is pretty ironic that I just published this article, and then this study hits the news:

Thanks to Sweat Science for drawing my attention to this one!

Vitamin supplements may not be as useful as we once thought

It is undisputed that when dealing with a vitamin deficiency, supplementation is an excellent way to speed up the recovery process.  In addition, it has also long been thought that taking a daily multivitamin can go a long way in preventing disease and maintaining health, even in the absence of such a deficiency.  However, a new line of research is showing that the prophylactic use of vitamins may not be as useful as we once thought.

This issue was examined in a large 2011 study which looked at just under 39 000 middle aged women over the course of 20 years.  These women were followed to see what vitamins they were taking on a daily basis in conjunction with how long they lived. 

Throughout the 20-year block that the study took place, just under 16 000 of the subjects deceased.  Among these women, it was to the surprise of the researchers that most vitamins and minerals had little to no impact on the longevity of the subjects.  On top of that, there were a number of vitamins and minerals that were actually associated with a higher risk of death (including iron, copper, folic acid, and B-vitamins). 

This study is not the only one putting these supplements into question;  another 2011 study took a more specific approach, as they followed just under 36 000 men, and looked at the relationship between vitamin E supplementation and the frequency of prostate cancer.

Just to provide some background information, it is well established that free radical damage is associated with an increased risk of cancer.  Free radicals are essentially charged particles that bounce around in your body, create inflammation and cellular damage, and predispose you to cancer.  It is also thought that supplementing with anti-oxidants, which help rid the body of free radicles, reduce the risk of cancer.

Despite vitamin E being a strong anti-oxidant, the researchers of this study did not see what one would expect.  In fact, of 36 000 men who were followed, just over 1 200 developed prostate cancer within 12 years.  Of this 1 200, those who were taking a daily vitamin E supplement were 17% more likely to develop prostate cancer than those who were taking a placebo (a sugar pill they thought was vitamin E).  While it is highly unlikely that these supplements are causing disease, these studies are really starting to cast significant doubt in our daily multi-vitamin regimen. 

So what does this research show us?  It is important to note that these studies are not perfect.  First, they are looking at the correlation of taking supplements with the frequency of a disease, rather than actually trying to see what is causing the disease.   Just because more men who took vitamin E developed prostate cancer does not mean the vitamin E caused the cancer.  In fact, this is highly unlikely.  It is much more probable that there were other factors contributing to the disease frequency that the researchers did not account for. 

That being said, the good news is that when you repeat the same studies mentioned above, except with replacing supplements with a well-balanced diet of fruit and vegetables, we see exactly what one would expect: increased longevity and decreased frequency of cancer.  

Therefore, while we cannot definitely say if multivitamins are good or bad, maintaining a variable and consistently well-balanced diet is your best approach to maintaining optimal vitamin and mineral levels in your body.