The Grey Area

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Photo courtesy of Mike Hone. Check out his awesome TdF gallery here.

Since doping is already clouding the air in the world of cycling I thought I’d bring up a topic on my mind; the grey area of performance enhancing methods.

There’s a saying that I grew up hearing sports commentators joking about “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”. In many other sports, it’s the norm. In cycling, it’s taboo.

It’s human nature to play any game around the rules and as close to the boundaries as possible. If you don’t, you will probably lose. This goes for anything – board games, business, sports, etc.

Boundaries are sometimes ambiguous – especially when it comes to performance enhancing methods. There are lots of things an athlete can do to enhance his or her performance and gain an edge. Training is performance enhancing. Hydrating is performance enhancing. A protein shake after a workout is performance enhancing. Steroids are performance enhancing.

You can easily see where the boundary lays in these examples, but there is a massive grey area in-between. For example, caffeine is a socially accepted drug and is legal. Many of us use it before and during a race with the intent to enhance our performance. I can’t survive without it and there’s no doubt in my mind that it gives me a boost (although scientific studies show mixed results) . BTW, did you know that caffeine was on WADA’s banned list until 2004 (over 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter)?

Orally ingesting Sodium Bicarbonate is not banned, but it’s performance effects are definitely there (for certain types of events). I know many athletes who have taken it and there is no stigma attached to it. It’s legal after all. Same thing with pseudoephedrine which was just taken off the banned list. There is mixed research that determines its effectiveness, but even if you think a substance works, then I believe that it does work. Is there an ethical difference between taking a banned substance that is performance enhancing and from taking one that you think is performance enhancing (but not banned)?

Hypoxic chambers (altitude tents) and not banned anywhere except for in Italy. Altitude training “stimulates your body’s natural production of EPO, rather than overwhelming your natural systems like “drug” EPO”. Is there a difference other than the wording? To that end, what’s the difference between going to a high altitude training camp in Colombia for a month? Same intent, same effect. I don’t see high altitude training or hypoxic tents as cheating, but you get my point. Perhaps in ten years altitude tents will be banned everywhere and those who used them will be considered “dirty cheats”. Nothing has changed except for the definition and where the line is drawn.

WADA’s criteria when deeming a substance or method banned is if it fits into two of the following three categories:

(1) the substance has the potential to enhance sport performance

(2) poses a threat to athlete health

(3) violates the spirit of sport.

We can see that all the examples talked about above can fall into two of the three categories, but is also widely open to interpretation. As humans, we’ll find the boundaries and allowable limits then back it off just a little so that we’re playing in that grey area. At the elite level of sport, that little edge can make the difference between winning and losing or getting next season’s contract.

If you’re wondering what the status of a substance is in Australia, you can look it up here on ASADA’s website.

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