Performance-enhancing drugs – Sport’s Dirty Secrets

June 12, 2007

Far more frequently than most of us would like, the sports news features fresh allegations of foul play and cheating.  A two-part documentary Sport’s Dirty Secrets looked to bring together some of the most notorious cases in one timeline of shame.  As far as bioethics is concerned, interest focusses on the second episode (TRILT identifier: 006B9F19, first transmitted on Channel 4 at 23:05 on 29th May 2007).  In particular, there is helpful archive footage of both the BALCO scandal in athletics, and of the misuse of blood products in cycling, with a focus around the Festina team.

BALCO (or Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative) was the company run by Victor Conte that developed and supplied tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) an artificial steroid.  THG became popular with certain sprinters as it was synthetic and initially undetectable since, without a reference specimen to compare, the authorities had no way of showing it was there.  All of this changed in 2003 when an informant provided a syringe containing traces of THG.  As a result various athletes, including American sprinter Kelli White and Britain’s Dwain Chambers, were found guilty of taking the drug and banned from competition.

As participants in an endurance event, cyclist have tended to favour an alternative compound, erythropoietin (EPO).  EPO is a natural hormone involved in the regulation of red blood cells.  As the theory goes, the more red blood cells you’ve got, the more oxygen you can carry around the body and the more efficiently your muscles can work.  Traditionally, it has been hard to prove illegal use of EPO supplement since it is naturally found in the body.  Successful discovery of misuse has more normally involved catching athletes or their associates red-handed with paraphenalia used for doping.  Such was the case in 1998, when Willy Voet, the coach of the Festina cycling team, was found with substantial quantities of EPO during a routine customs search.

Either of these clips could be used to introduce discussion of the underlying science and/or ethics of using artificial enhancements in competitive sports [it is hoped that more background on this topic will shortly be the subject of one of our Bioethics Briefings].

Please note: as might be anticipated, given the original late night transmission, the documentary includes explicit detail of some of the other ways in which sportsmen have fallen from grace, and it is therefore not recommended to watch the whole programme with students, particularly a school-age group.