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Does Blood Doping Even Work?

A recent study found no evidence that using blood doping drugs gives elite athletes any advantage

In nearly every sport, high-profile athletes—from Flo Jo to Lance Armstrong—have taken performance-enhancing drugs to compete with the rest of their field and set off doping scandals. And as if the shame of being caught wasn’t enough to make these athletes regret their decisions, there’s another catch. Those drugs might not actually be performance enhancing. A recent study found no evidence that using blood doping drugs gives elite athletes any advantage.

Discovery writes:

In a review study published today in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, Cohen and his colleagues sifted through existing studies of EPO’s effect on athletic performance. His main complaint is that these studies did not use elite athletes, rather study subjects who were “moderately trained athletes.” As a result, the effects of EPO in high-level races have not been well understood, he explained.

Basically, the researchers argue that, for someone who’s just a regular athlete, blood doping works. There are all sorts of studies that show that things like erythropeitin (EPO) increase the amount of oxygen a regular body can take in and use. But in elite athletes, that effect disappears. Or, at least, that’s what the study claims. Others disagree. Discovery spoke with Michael Joyner, who studies elite athletes. He says that just because so many top athletes haven’t participated in these studies, it doesn’t mean that EPO doesn’t work on them. Discovery again:

“It’s like a red line in a car,” Joyner said about the difference between elite athletes and those participating in the previous EPO studies. “The red line is the same, but if you give them more horsepower (in this case EPO), you’re going to go faster,” said Joyner.

This claim has been made before, too. In the 1980s, researchers claimed that steroids didn’t enhance elite athlete performances. But anyone who’s seen Mark McGwire bat knows that’s simply not true. And if doping really didn’t do anything, why risk it?

More from Smithsonian.com:

Lance Armstrong Surrenders Against Doping Charges and Will be Banned for Life

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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