Sniffing Out The Science Behind Sports Doping

How does blood doping boost performance in events like the Tour de France? Do anabolic steroids help the world's fastest man run faster? In his book, Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat , Chris Cooper discusses how these banned drugs work, or don't — and how they are detected.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

It's been called the dirtiest race in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible), and Ben Johnson's got a brilliant start. It's Johnson away and clear, and Lewis is not going to catch him. Johnson wins it, Lewis second, Christie third. Christie got the bronze.

FLATOW: The Seoul Olympics in 1988, Canadian Ben Johnson has just set the world record in the men's 100 meters. Three days later, Johnson is stripped of his gold medal after he tests positive for anabolic steroids. Six of the eight athletes participating in that race that day would also test positive for banned substances.

Fast-forward to 2012, 400-meter runner Debbie Dunn resigns from the U.S. Olympic team after she tests positive for excessive testosterone. And seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong fights charges that he used systematic doping to compete.

So the story about athletes getting caught cheating is not a new one. So why do they continue to try to outfox the rules? How do these banned drugs really work, and how are they detected? Chris Cooper is author of "Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport." He's also head of research at the Center for Sports and Exercise Science at University of Essex, and he joins us from Suffolk, England. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHRIS COOPER: Yeah, welcome, Ira, thank you for putting me on.

FLATOW: Why do they feel like they have to cheat?

COOPER: Well, they want to win.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: I mean I think - and we cheated - I mean we have all these financial scandals in Britain at the moment about people, you know, cheating to get more money. That's just what happens in any way of life. I mean, they're committed to win, they try and cheat. And that's true not just with doping, it's true with anything in life or in sport.

And in soccer people will sometimes handle the ball illegally to stop a goal when they're not the goalkeeper. That's cheating. There's just different kinds of cheating. But it's just cheating, yeah.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to come back, and - we take a short break, we're going to come back and talk lots more with Chris Cooper, author of "Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport." Our number, 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to talk about this. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, or go to our website at sciencefriday.com and join the discussion there. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about sports doping with my guest Chris Cooper, author of "Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport." Chris, is it spy versus spy, as they say? Are the scientists one step behind the athletes in trying to come up with tests to see if they are cheating or not?

COOPER: I think it varies. It is spy versus spy. Sometimes the scientists are ahead, sometimes the athletes ahead. It varies. I mean I would say in some ways the scientists are a bit more ahead at the moment, but of course maybe there's something undetectable we don't know about. But it varies, yeah.

FLATOW: Well, because I asked before, I guess, you know, it's sort of a silly question, why do they cheat. Of course they cheat. But don't - can't we now - you know, look how many years after Lance Armstrong has been accused of using illegal drugs, it's caught up with him. Are we going to be able to catch up with athletes years from now after this Olympics if they were cheating?

COOPER: Well, I obviously can't comment about Lance Armstrong for a range of reasons. But in terms of catching up, yes, what's happening now is that the samples are being stored for a length of time, you know, legally, so for eight years the samples are stored, the blood samples, the urine samples are stored, and all the data is stored, and they've got new ways of capturing all the molecules, I mean with these new what are called metabolomic techniques.

So I think if you take a drug now actually at the Olympic Games that you think won't be detected, it just needs somebody in your entourage to squeal about what that undetectable drug is, which has happened in the past, and then you can be retested.

So I mean I made the flippant comment to a journalist, rather silly to say, that we should wait for eight years to give out the medals, then we know everyone's (unintelligible) tested. But I don't really mean that, but the samples are kept for eight years. We can test later on, yeah.

FLATOW: In the book, why do you say that although it's hard to say unequivocally that the fastest man on Earth will run faster on steroids, it's much easier to make this statement about the fastest woman?

COOPER: Well, put crudely, we know men run faster than women. That's - it doesn't need much science to show that. And anything that makes a woman more like a man will increase how fast they can run. And we know that androgenic anabolic steroids, which are the male sex hormone, things like testosterone, have an effect on muscle mass. In women there's a much bigger range for them to improve their muscle mass.

So it's much easier to see that. And we have really good data from the East German doping program, when the Berlin Wall came down, showing that, much bigger effects in female athletes than in male athletes.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the things that athletes might try to do or have done. What is blood doping?

COOPER: So blood doping covers a range of programs and cheating programs, all designed to increase the number of red blood cells in your body. And it's the red blood cells that carry the oxygen around the body. And when you're doing long-distance events, things like 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, Tour de France, you are limited by how much oxygen physically is in your blood.

So what blood doping does, it aims to increase the number of red blood cells. It's what athletes do when they do altitude training, only taken to an extreme.

FLATOW: I just want to correct something, a misimpression I might have made before. Lance Armstrong has been charged but not convicted of any wrongdoing, and...

COOPER: And also in that first 100 meters, six people were not - did not test positive for drugs, but they all have at some point been implicated. So you have to be careful when you...

FLATOW: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Thank you very much for making that point. But is it safe to assume with all these stories that there are athletes who are still trying, going to try to cheat?

COOPER: I'm sure there are. I mean, as you've just found, you've just given a story about the U.S. athlete, Debbie Dunn, and we just caught recently a British athlete at the Tour de France, Frank Schleck has just tested positive. So they will all still try to cheat. I think sometimes, some sports there's less cheating, and there is a culture of cheating you can reduce(ph).

So I think the Tour de France is undoubtedly, I would say, cleaner now for a range of reasons than it was, and that's partly a very aggressive and targeted expensive testing program and partly an education program. So it fluctuates. But there will always be individuals - I think when it gets really bad is when you get the sort of organized cheating, because then they get good at it because then there's a big team behind them.

The East Germans did that, and in the Tour de France, that was clearly happening in the past. So that's the real concern. Individuals will always try (unintelligible) coaches and athletes to cheat. But it's the organized stuff that's really dangerous to sport.

FLATOW: Let's talk about human growth hormone, because that's big here in the States. That was talked about a lot with baseball players. How effective is human growth hormone?

COOPER: Well, that's a really good question, and I think the answer for scientists is that we just don't know. The data that we have from the laboratory is sort of equivocal. I mean, you can show that muscle mass is - it goes up, but it doesn't appear to correlate with strength. So you get bigger muscles, but a lot of it is water retention.

So what we would say as scientists, in the limited amount we can do, is we don't see human growth hormone having effect on putting on muscle mass - which is strength, which is what people use it for, or claim to use it for. But what we can't say for sure is that we don't do - we're not allowed, obviously, to do research on elite athletes because they would be banned, and also we can't give the same levels of doses sometimes.

So it is quite difficult as a sort of - my normal scientific career, I can test things properly. In doping in sport, it's difficult to test. So - but the evidence of human growth hormone is much less strong than the evidence for anabolic steroids that it's effective.

FLATOW: So it might be much ado about nothing?

COOPER: It might be. I mean, of course, there is a very strong placebo effect in taking a drug that no one else has got and that it's banned, and you're injecting it. So there's huge importance in improved performance even if something is not having an effect on your biochemistry.

FLATOW: You say that when we talk about stimulants, take amphetamines and you feel can run faster; take caffeine and you actually will run faster.

COOPER: Yeah, well, that's, again, laboratory studies. And we've done - there's a reason, we've got a data set on amphetamines and a lot of data on caffeine. And clearly what I mean by that is that amphetamines give you - because they're a recreational drug, they give you this feeling of high. Caffeine doesn't. So if you take a lot of caffeine, just your heartbeat goes up, and you feel - but the actual effect on fatigue - by fatigue I mean what stops you really competing at the highest level - appears to be stronger in caffeine than in amphetamine, from what we can see in the laboratory.

FLATOW: So why is it not banned then?

COOPER: All sorts of potential reasons. It's - so caffeine is a drug, but it is not considered to be against the spirit of sport because it's taken - a drug, it's in society. We all take it. And one of the reasons you have to be banned is you have to be harmful to health or against the spirit of sport.

So the organization that chooses, the World Anti-doping Agency, doesn't consider caffeine now to be against the spirit of sport. They did in the past. And that's very much a judgment call, and part of the reason I wrote the book was to enable more people to understand the science and to be able to be involved in those judgment calls, which I think are important.

FLATOW: Chris Cooper, the book he's speaking about is "Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Sports in Drugs." Can altering a single gene dramatically improve sports performance? And might we just see, you know, gene-altering things happening now?

COOPER: Well, gene doping is the big sexy topic, if you like, for drugs in sports. It's one I get asked a lot about. We do know from certain individuals that gene doping, you know, a single gene can make a difference, and there's one very famous example, a guy called Eero Mantyranta, who was a Finnish cross-country skier, who had an altered gene that enabled him to have more red blood cells, and therefore it was like he was naturally blood doping. And he won five gold medals, three Olympics, two world championships.

He was, you know, a single mutant. So you're looking at sort of a mutation of one individual. But it's much more general than what you'll get in a combination of genes. We know a lot of genes, up to 200, affect performance, and it'll be some combination. So it's relatively rare to get a single gene that has an effect.

It doesn't mean you couldn't design that and work on it, but it's relatively rare.

FLATOW: But it can be done? I mean, people - you're saying people are working on this.

COOPER: Well, scientists are working on trying to improve muscle mass because there are - in certain diseases. So there are animal studies trying to improve muscle mass for a range of diseases. It turns out that that's not a very popular or sort of huge pharmaceutical need for that. So there's not a huge number of scientists working on that.

But there are some who have injected compound genes into muscle in animals and shown an increase in muscle mass, but it should be said that gene therapy works in animals, where you have people who are ill for a single gene, like cystic fibrosis, and you could cure those sorts of things in animal models. It doesn't seem to work in humans.

So I'm fairly easy about whether I think, you know, when gene doping will be effective. I think people might be trying it. I think it's unlikely. But I also think it's very unlikely to be effective, really.

FLATOW: Let me go to a quick question from Chuck in Lansing, Michigan. Hi, Chuck.

CHUCK: Yeah, hi. You actually brought this up earlier. The effect of training at altitude is to increase the number of red blood cells in your body. Taking your own blood out, saving out your cells and putting them back in later is physiologically doing exactly the same thing. Why is one legal and the other one not?

FLATOW: Yeah.

COOPER: Well, it's a rule. So it's - so there are rules in sport in the same way that there are rules in other parts of life. So you know, why are there four quarters in a football game rather than, you know, three? So it is a rule...

FLATOW: Yeah.

COOPER: Well, it's a rule. So it's - so there are rules in sport, in the same way as there are rules in other parts of life. So, you know, why there are four quarters in a football game rather than, you know, three. So it is a rule. And the question is, why is that rule there? And you have to look at historically and the ways of people who decide these things, and they generally tend to ban things that are medical. They don't like drugs, and they don't like - so blood transfusion is a medical procedure.

They don't really like that, whereas altitude training is not a medical procedure. Seems to be seen to be more in the spirit of sport. So personally, I think there's a, you know, it's an arbitrary rule. I do think altitude training, as long as you can deal with the altitude, is unlikely to be damaging to health. But if you get blood transfusions wrong, you know, you can have a problem. So there is that argument, but it is an arbitrary - a relatively arbitrary rule. Athletes do lots of - as you heard from - in the technological chapter, the discussion previously, lots of things athletes and their coach and engineers do to improve performance, you know, very, very high-tech. So you can argue, why do we do that with blood transfusion? It's just a rule that they decide they don't like it, and we can decide that, you know?

FLATOW: Yeah. We can change that if you like.

COOPER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Chris Cooper, thank you very much - author of "Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport," a great book, especially now for - this Olympics coming up. Thanks, Chris, for joining us today.

COOPER: Thank you.

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