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by Iain Treloar
July 13, 2020
A home Olympics is a powerful motivator to be on top of your game, as Russia demonstrated at Sochi – for better and worse. Now, a Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed echoes of that boundary-pushing mentality in the Great Britain camp in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics.
Through 2011 and 2012, in the lead-up to the Olympics, 91 athletes from eight sports – including cycling – were involved in a secretive and experimental trial of ketones in the hope of securing a competitive advantage. Athletes involved in the trial were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and a waiver absolving UK Sport of any responsibility in the event of anti-doping complications.
“You cannot talk to anybody outside of the research team and your peer group, i.e. athletes and coaches who have also signed this NDA, about the details of this study, especially not about the type of nutritional intervention you are testing,” the agreement reportedly read.
“UK Sport does not guarantee, promise, assure or represent that use of ketone esters is absolutely World Anti-Doping Code compliant and therefore excludes all responsibility for use of the ketone ester.” In other words: if this goes wrong, you’re on your own.
Ketones – an energy source derived from fat stored by your liver – are a fringe area of sporting nutrition which have become increasingly popular over the past decade, after synthetic versions were first developed for military purposes. Taken exogenously – usually as a drink – ketones are used by the body as fuel prior to glycogen and blood sugar stores, reducing the production of lactic acid and improving endurance.
The World Anti-Doping Agency does not forbid the use of ketones, although it appears clear from the athlete waiver that its status as of 2011 was sufficiently murky that UK Sport was concerned that it could be banned in the future.
“WADA might exercise … their rights to regulate … [and] collect blood samples or retrospectively test old samples,” UK Sport reportedly told its athletes. “This may occur if there were pressure of the media if the concept was to leak. However … ketosis is a temporary physiological state and would be difficult to prove or test with any post-event samples.”
WADA was reportedly contacted by UK Sport prior to the trial commencing, telling them that while ketones were not then a banned substance, WADA reserved the right to change its guidelines.
The Mail on Sunday investigation also revealed that UK Sport sought to suppress the release of scientific publications on ketones until after the Olympics, out of fear of a backlash.
The use of ketones is increasingly widespread in professional cycling, with teams including Jumbo-Visma using them to gain a sporting edge. The Boulder, Colorado-based sports nutrition supplier The Feed told CyclingTips that they directly supply eight WorldTour teams, and at least half of the top 30 individual riders in the WorldTour standings.
However, the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC) – a group of teams that hold themselves to a higher anti-doping standard than the UCI rules require – does not allow the use of ketones in its signatory teams, a factor that Tom Dumoulin cited when withdrawing from the group. The teams bound by their MPCC membership not to use ketones are Cofidis, NTT, Team Sunweb, Lotto Soudal, Groupama-FDJ, Bora-Hansgrohe, AG2R La Mondiale, EF Education First and Israel Start-Up Nation.
The MPCC’s stance is that ketones provide an unfair and unnatural performance boost, citing a Belgian study which claimed that they gave up to a 15% advantage. Based on a 2011 trial involving British rowers, UK Sport’s findings were a more modest 1-2% improvement – marginal, but a gain nonetheless.
Some anti-doping bodies, including the Dutch, consider the use of ketones a “grey area” with the Dutch body’s head Herman Ram saying that “too little is known about the possible health consequences … It is not on the doping list, but if we receive questions from athletes, we advise them not to use ketones.”
It is not known which athletes in the 2012 British Olympic squad participated in the study, nor the extent to which it improved their performance, although 91 athletes received 135 doses in the course of the trial. More than 40% of athletes reportedly suffered side-effects including gastrointestinal upsets and vomiting.
In response to the Mail on Sunday investigation, British Cycling conceded only that “some cyclists” were involved in the trial, and deferred any further questions to UK Sport.
UK Sport maintains that the trial was carried out to high ethical standards and in consultation with WADA.