Anti-Doping Agency Reviews Low-Oxygen Tents Many elite endurance athletes train or sleep in low-oxygen tents to boost their cardiovascular capacity. But the tents -- known as hypoxic chambers -- may wind up on a list of banned substances and devices.

Anti-Doping Agency Reviews Low-Oxygen Tents

Anti-Doping Agency Reviews Low-Oxygen Tents

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Many elite endurance athletes train or sleep in low-oxygen tents to boost their cardiovascular capacity. But the tents — known as hypoxic chambers — may wind up on a list of banned substances and devices.


With all the recent headline stories about sports doping, there's one you may have missed. It doesn't include any shocking positive drug tests by a prominent athlete. It's a story about altitude tents. They're portable, low oxygen chambers used by many of the world's best athletes to improve their endurance and aerobic performance. They are legal, but after today maybe not - in Olympic sports.

The World Anti-Doping Agency will decide whether the tents should be on the banned list of performance enhancers, just like anabolic steroids and amphetamines. The decision could have a major impact on the debate over what constitutes cheating in sports.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Imagine climbing to the top of a mountain in one step.

(Soundbite of zipper)

GOLDMAN: Dave Ciavarella(ph), a competitive triathlete living in Portland, Oregon, unzips the clear, plastic altitude tent surrounding his bed. He invites me in and up to his high elevation world.

Dr. DAVE CIAVARELLA (Triathlete, Physician): About 10,800 to 11,000 feet.

GOLDMAN: Eleven thousand feet. And your wife, who is standing about a foot away from us outside the tent, is at what elevation?

Dr. CIAVARELLA: She's at about 1100 feet.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. And I can see her very well. She's not that far away.


(Soundbite of air-pump)

GOLDMAN: On the floor near Dave's side of the bed, a thin plastic hose hypnotically pumps air into the tent. The hose is connected to a machine that lowers the air's oxygen content, thereby simulating a mountaintop environment. Dave and Ann(ph) Ciavarella - also a triathlete - have been sleeping in this $7600 tent for about eight months. Despite some headaches and shortness of breath early on, they say they've reaped the athletic rewards.

Dave's a 40-year-old doctor and he marvels at the way his body has adapted to the many hours breathing in low oxygen. He says his cardiovascular system is noticeably stronger, and the proof came during a bike ride with friends after his first three months in the tent.

Dr. CIAVARELLA: My normal heart rate at cycling in normal conditions - flat roads, normal wind at 24 to 25 miles an hour - would be about 130, 120. I was pulling a group of eight people at 26, 27 miles an hour with a heart rate of 85 to 90.

GOLDMAN: For years, athletes have benefited from living at high altitudes and then driving down to train at lower elevations. For those who couldn't afford the expense or time of living in one place and training in another, the altitude tents were a godsend. For more than a decade, elite swimmers, cyclists, skiers have used the technology that essentially brings the mountain to the athlete. But today, the World Anti-Doping Agency, known as WADA, is voting on whether to take the mountain away and place altitude tents on next year's prohibited list of substances and methods.

The idea of including the tent with notorious banned performance-enhancers like steroids and human growth hormone has sparked a lively debate between sports ethicists and scientists, like Dr. Benjamin Levine, who thinks a ban will send the wrong message.

Dr. BENJAMIN LEVINE (Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, Presbyterian Hospital, University of Texas-Southwestern, Dallas): That any device that alters the environment is unethical and illegal.

GOLDMAN: Like saunas or the warming pools divers sit in between dives, or real altitude training. Dr. Levine heads the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Presbyterian Hospital in University of Texas-Southwestern in Dallas. He worries that if you ban the low oxygen or hypoxic tents, some may wonder why not ban those athletes who actually live at a high altitude and then train down below?

Dr. LEVINE: It's the same thing. Biologically, physiologically, functionally - there's no difference between real altitude and these artificial hypoxic environments.

GOLDMAN: Morally, however, there is a difference, according to Tom Murray. He chairs WADA's Ethical Issues Review Panel. Several months ago, Murray says the panel ruled that the altitude tent violated the spirit of sport, because it required the athlete to do nothing more than enter the tent and sit or lie down.

Mr. TOM MURRAY (Ethical Issues Review Panel, WADA): The athlete does nothing. You know, that's passive in the moral sense. We thought that was at least not supportive of the spirit of sport, which is that excellence in sport should come about as a consequence of both the natural talents that we have and particularly the admirable things we do to perfect those talents.

GOLDMAN: It's now up to the WADA executive board to decide what to do about the altitude tents. Triathlete Dave Ciavarella says he, like most athletes, is very much against a ban. But even though WADA officials admit a ban would be hard to enforce, Ciavarella says if it happens, he'll break down the tent and look for other ways to edge towards his athletic goals.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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